There is little doubt that Steve Jobs possesses an extraordinary degree of sheer business acumen, but of equal, if not greater importance is the fact that his leadership skills have proven to be indispensable. One can make the solid argument that leadership skills for Steve Jobs are just as important as understanding of the circuitry required to bring computers alive.
While most biographies and more personal sketches contend that Jobs is egomaniacal and arrogant and puts many people off with his sometimes erratic behavior, he is nonetheless highly respected by employees, peers, and the business community globally (Goodell, 1996).“The company he founded in a garage with partner Steve Wozniak quickly seized the lead in the PC and enterprise information management revolution, reaching $100 million in revenues in 1980. Later the same year, Apple launched the largest IPO since Ford Motor Company went public" (Updegrove, 2008, p. 35) and it is well known history that following this meteoric rise to wealth and prestige, the company’s value began to plummet and Steve Jobs was let go.
He went on to Pixar and after leading a successful battle there and winning smaller successes with his company NeXT—which was later bought by Apple—he was brought back to Apple where the rest, as they say, becomes history. Since Steve Jobs has been at the helm of Apple innovation has been the standard and has set their most ardent competitor, Microsoft off completely in terms of style, marketing, cross-platform innovation, and general consumer savvy. While Microsoft has remained (for the most part) hugely successful in its manufacture of affordable and practical consumer computing solutions, the company lacks the kind of drive and ambition to always create something new that Apple seems to have had, especially in the last few years with the iPod and iTunes institutions.
In many ways, Steve Jobs is a revolutionary. Not necessarily in any outright political or social sense, but in terms of his ability to take innovation to an unprecedented level. From his work with the first computers in his garage to his innovation in animation at Pixar Studios and now to the music industry which has become inexorably tied to iTunes, Jobs has created a position for himself where his technologies cannot be “un-present" as they are pervasive.
What definable traits make him a leader?
The most effective way to get a sense for what it is that makes Steve Jobs a leader is to look back through the “archives" and find the articles that show him when he is down on his luck. When Apple’s share prices were in the gutter and the company he started with his friend in his garage was moving in directions that appalled him. It was at this point that he demonstrated the quality that has most defined him since the beginning of his career—optimism tempered with clear vision and an understanding of what appeals to people. Whether it’s his own employees or his understanding of the finicky tastes of a young, tech-savvy generation, Steve Jobs knows what will work because he seems to know what people want and like. When topped off with the funding necessary to carry out broad, optimistic (okay, risky) ventures, he is impossible to stop. Even though he may be greatly feared and even intensely hated, he is successful because he can lead his own team as well as his consumer base.
One of the most salient aspects of Steve Jobs and his leadership ability is the way he is able to use creativity and vision as the hinge upon which business strategy is placed. In fact, in many ways, from the beginning of his career until the current point, vision has been his strongest suit and has sometimes been the only common ground for development to continue and recreation of a project or company (Apple) to take place. For instance, the 90s were grim times for Apple with record low share prices and unfruitful research and development initiatives. Up until this point, “the strategy had performed so poorly that there was little left to defend. Only after Steve Jobs returned as CEO, reclaimed the best of what Apple once was–a passionate design company that believed technology could change the world" (Montgomery, 2008, p. 55).
Controlled but frequent risks that reinvent older or create new concepts are one of the biggest keys to Steve Jobs’ leadership success, especially with Apple. One writer called Steve Jobs as “epochal" leader, suggesting that he was unafraid to break with traditions in American consumption and “re-imagined a computer as a tool for each person, translating that revolutionary notion into a viable commercial product with the introduction of Apple II in 1977" (Zuboff, 2008, p. 11). When discussing making the risky jump to the Mach platform, a 1998 interview revealed Jobs’ obsession with managed risk and demonstrated how he viewed taking on a difficult project that would yield uncertain results. He said that, “if we wanted to build a really fine operating system team…even if it’s currently not within reach…You make a commitment to that direction, to the best thing, and that’s what attracts the best people. We couldn’t have built the operating system team if we were doing standard Berkeley UNIX like some other people" (Jobs, Denning, & Frenkel, 1989, p. 439).
What 3 factors make him worthy of follower loyalty and commitment? What is the rationale?
Oddly enough, what is most inspiring of loyalty and commitment in his own organization also works for the whole of the company—it is Jobs’ zest for branding. As one writer states, “his passion for his product is boundless and he seems to instinctively understand what consumers all want. His understanding of great design is second to none and his attention to detail is nothing short of fanatical. He even gets the type of consistently positive bottom line results…" (Hensley, 2007).
Steve Jobs is bold and fearless but is not irresponsible. This makes him incredibly easy to follow and place trust in because he continually makes informed choices that are risky but generally not flawed. He clearly understands how to approach challenges when the odds are stacked against him. For instance, a more recent example from his career was when Apple was beginning to make its first tentative foray into the music business—an industry that had historically been as far removed from computing as one could imagine. In his approach, he actively sought out “the top five US record companies directly to negotiate their backing, and reportedly demonstrated the service personally to skeptical artists such as Mick Jagger and U2s Bono" (Director, 2003, p. 15). In short, he is willing to take the road less traveled—while a traditional view might have held that it would have been more prudent to approach the companies in a far less direct way and simply hope that they “got" the concept of this new way to appreciate (and of course buy music) his direct selling approach literally changed the way the Western world came to know music.
This act of thinking outside of the box builds loyalty. Jobs is a strong, enigmatic character who takes calculated risks and who will not be ignored. This extends from his organizational philosophy to his understanding of how he should connect with the users of his products. “Steve Jobs eschews traditional marketing approaches like focus groups and consumer studies. He has an uncanny ability to take the pulse of the marketplace, bringing out now just new products, but new ways of shopping" (Warren, 2008, p. 15). Not surprisingly then, this same innovative and “outside of the box" thinking carries over to those in his company. While many are afraid of him as he can be at times brash and impulsive in more general decisions, he is nonetheless one who is willing to consider all angles of a situation—a valuable element to any CEO or organizational leader.
How did his upbringing contribute to his emergence as a leader?
Goodell (1996) and several biographers not mentioned here (but scathingly referred to throughout the literature on Jobs and his reactions to negative press) go to great lengths to unravel the myriad details of Jobs’ early life, some even speculating on his father’s “never satisfied" state with the young adopted man and on his inability to stay focused in school. What is most remarkable, with all of these possible points of speculation aside, is that he blazed his own trail, gaining positions at key technology companies from the time he was old enough to work part time. One of the great stories surrounding the advent of Apple involves Jobs before he dropped out of college, deciding to take a calligraphy course on a whim. This sets into motion his ideas about stylizing products and ultimately becomes part of the core of his leadership style as well. He sees that with hard work and attention to creative and aesthetic factors as well as remaining focused on the task, a person (or group) can produce something that is beautiful, functional, and unique.
“Jobs himself has been labeled a saint, a sinner, and now a saint again. A college dropout, he inspired a generation of rebellious start-ups, was cast out of his own company at 30, and then wandered in the wilderness until was time to come home and rescue his business as a creative crusader" (U.S. News and World Report Best Leaders, 2005). He is an unconventional man and a non-traditional leader but these very untraditional aspects of his life have made him into the unique figure he is today.