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Why Steve Jobs Is a Leadership Nightmare

Steve Jobs sends the wrong message to aspiring leaders.

Key points

  • As one of the most successful entrepreneurial leaders of the last half-century, Steve Jobs is admired by many.
  • Both positive and negative accounts of Steve Jobs' leadership have been given. He has been hailed as both charismatic and controlling.
  • Jobs' success despite his bad behavior might give young people the wrong message that it's okay to behave badly as a leader.

Steve Jobs was one of the most successful entrepreneurial leaders of the last half-century. He will likely be remembered as one of business's iconic leaders. Many of my students admire him. That is the problem.

Steve Jobs was both a visionary and a tyrant

As more details emerge about Jobs' leadership, we hear both positive and negative. He was highly successful, both as an entrepreneurial founder and after leading Apple to corporate greatness after the company had become stagnant for more than a decade under different leadership. He worked hard, chose bright, capable people to work with him, and was supremely confident. His visionary leadership and charisma were evident in his on-stage presentations of Apple's newest products and strategic direction.

But Jobs could also be a tyrant. He was obsessively controlling, and given to fits of rage, throwing tantrums and yelling at employees and board members. He could tear down someone's ideas, or the person him/herself, in a public display. Some have said he took credit for others' ideas, and his confidence led to a sort of over-the-top arrogance.

In sum, while Jobs was a successful leader, entrepreneur, and visionary, he fell considerably short of the qualities possessed by the very best leaders. This is a case where Jobs' success, and his charisma, overshadows all of his bad qualities and behaviors, and that is why I think that Steve Jobs is a leadership scholar's nightmare.

Steve Jobs' success sends the wrong message

Jobs sends the wrong message to aspiring leaders. His success despite his bad behavior might encourage young people to forget about the critical role of a leader to develop followers, boost their confidence and sense of efficacy, and treat them with respect. The very best leaders are positive role models for their followers—modeling positive and ethical behavior, and giving credit where credit is due.

It makes us wonder what Steve Jobs would have been like if he had all of the qualities and behaviors that research shows are possessed by the very best leaders. He might have truly been someone who deserves everyone's admiration. Instead, my nightmare is that future leaders may follow in Steve Jobs' path, thinking that it's ok to behave badly as long as a leader is successful. Instead, I would rather that they critically analyze his leadership and learn how to be better.

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