Steve Jobs: The Most Dangerous Role Model for (the vast majority of) Business Leaders

Taken too soon...but a CEO that few others can measure
up to, so perhaps not the best role model for leaders.
Despite - or perhaps because of - ongoing events in Ukraine, I still manage the occasional consulting assignment, where I assist executives in resolving tricky issues that come up from time to time. Some are exciting, many are mundane, a few are insane and the rest are just ones I have to say "Sorry, don't believe I can assist / it's not going to work / I have to wax strip my back for the next few days..."

But whatever the case, one thing I do notice - and have so for a number of years - is that many CEOs and CEOs-in-waiting (perhaps more so in their minds than in reality) constantly ponder their own leadership. Are they doing things right? Do they have the right style for success? And in doing so, many compare themselves to other, more famous business leaders. A big ego doesn't necessarily mean you can't learn from and be inspired by others, nor does it necessarily mean you see yourself as your own model (with a few too many exceptions though!).

But within the past few years I have noticed that there has been a very certain trend which has had negative effects on many business outcomes. But first, a little background...

I grew up during the time when Jack Welch was seen as "the man": back in the mid-1990s when I embarked on my career, he was an icon. As Chairman/CEO for 15 years at GE, he had pioneering success at transforming the behemoth into a powerhouse, utilizing a methodology of Six Sigma that would become a cornerstone of my own skillset. He was seen as the ultimate "company man" when such a term was often derisory - he made it respectable again. He was the most studied CEO at that time, and his success launched Six Sigma and soon afterwards Lean into the corporate sphere in many Western companies.

It's this type of traditional corporate success which had served as a model for all others and it's one which many have copied successfully.

But within the past decade, a new icon of leadership had emerged. I speak - of course - of Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, the man who got booted out of the company he founded, and the man who led it back through a renaissance after years in the wilderness (more for Apple, not so for Steve). 

Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs The Rock Star. The anti-CEO CEO. The guy who should have dropped out on the roadside of success. The former LSD taking, pot smoking hippie l'enfant terrible, who didn't need any University degree to change the world.

He was the exception to the rule. In my world of tightly packed data sets, he is that one outlier, that lone dot so far away from the tight grouping of dots...the guy we don't like because he screws up our perfect models...but who I do worship for the amazing success he achieved even in trying circumstances. 

He was admired, feared, copied, studied, adored. His own man. He did things his way. He ignored the herd and beat his own that soon was followed by what would eventually be hundreds of millions of customers.

But let's get this out of the way: he was no saint. As one person who worked closely with him back in the mid-2000s told me "He was a complete prick. But..." and they went on to list/confirm some of the amazing qualities stated below. They are the qualities that made up for the incredible rudeness, the arrogance, the explosive temperament so regularly on show, the 'unusual' personal habits...

None of this diminishes the results he achieved.

Yet the simple fact remains that Steve Jobs is a role model that is the wrong one for too many CEOs. Most CEOs I meet are good administrators and that is what many companies need more than anything. But at times, you can be a good administrator in one situation and lousy in another. Steve made Apple into a company that dealt with his style...and enjoyed the rewards. But that is a trick few CEOs should even think of trying: more often than not the result would be ruinous.

I don't believe that a Steve Jobs can ever be truly 'made': they are born. Sure, perhaps circumstances refine and enhance their abilities, but really, Steve Jobs was clearly destined for glory at an early age. The innovator. The radicalizer. The person who sees the world through different eyes and realizes a grander vision of how it can be better. 

And that's the key.

Whilst my direct exposure to Steve Jobs consisted of a quick handshake in 2001 at a conference, I have spoken to many people who have worked with him and I have seen a pattern emerge, one that is so rare.

It is the combination of traits that made Steve so exceptional. 

First, he was a  true visionary. And I mean that in the sense he could see so clearly something great, both in the grand scheme of things and the smallest detail. Steve did not see a new product at first, but he saw a need or desire being met by a new capability, an entire experience around it. He never just saw a product alone, but people using that product and being happy - joyous - in doing so. Apples products command a price premium and a loyal following that those in an even slightly more commoditized market can barely dream of. Whilst Apple products are often criticized by hardware lovers as often being limited compared to other offerings, one thing that they cannot be touched on is the total user experience. That's what mattered to Steve...and that is what he knew they would want.

And that is what separated him from others. The ability not just to create, but to truly understand the creation's abilities and why it was good, why it was needed, why it could change lives.

He also possessed an incredible ability to visualize objects in 3 dimensional space. Whilst most people can do this to a basic level, they cannot 'hold' the vision and zoom in on details, to orient it in many different axis, to modify, to change aspects of it and observe the effects...Steve could. Think of CAD/CAM virtual reality modelling in real time. An amazing ability indeed for a product guy to have.

His drive, his energy was also amazing. The work ethic was legendary. Stories about 0300 emails and phone calls to his senior team are was his expectation of prompt replies. His exact work hours are hard to confirm due to the fact he was both private in his personal life, secretive in his business life and often worked from home. But it is certain he almost always was putting in around 80 hour weeks at a minimum...and likely much more. Now, this is not something everyone should do, as there are such issues as family and also the law of diminishing returns beyond a certain point. But with Steve and what he was different. He truly loved his job: he was passionate about it. And because of that, work was not so much work as play, as a hobby. And when you work on your hobby, you are able to do some amazing hours.

And of course he was smart. But not just 'normal' smart, he was unbelievably gifted intellectually. His IQ was exceptional. Whilst he never formally took an IQ test as an adult, one taken as a child showed his lowest baseline would be about 165, probably north of 170 and perhaps close to the 180 mark. 

Simply put, someone with an IQ of over 170, who is near pathologically driven, who is a grand thinker and who has incredible visual imagination powers is not going to use the same tools, think the same way or have the same values as someone with an IQ of 140-150 or so. 

And that 140-150 level is what many business leaders have. And that is why Steve Jobs is so wrong to emulate. He had intrinsic qualities and abilities that made him able to transcend the need for market studies, for process maps, for so many of the tools 'normal' people need to come to the right decisions. Steve Jobs ignored those rules, the conventions and the guides. He didn't need them. He had something better. He had himself. 

But that is something the rest of us lack. 

So we need our systems and processes, monthly P&L statements, our Lean Six Sigma, our surveys and studies. Sure, Steve sometimes used these, but they so often merely were adjunct to what he could clearly already see.

Jack Welch by contrast was also a smart guy and a great leader. But his IQ was nowhere near Steve Jobs...and that did not stop him from being an excellent CEO. He used tools and information sets, all the business best practices that now form core parts of business school curricula. He relied on advice from others to fill in his weaknesses. He was brilliant at developing teams and making sure that they were trained and rewarded. In short, he was the guy that could serve as a real role model for others. He was great indeed, but 'close enough' to the rest of us to be realistic and proper model to be inspired by.

I do believe that most business leaders need to realize that for most of them, following the path of Welch is more certain than that of Jobs. Still, when it comes to people we want to be like, Jack Welch will be studied by business students and they will follow him with rational thought...but Steve Jobs will be iconized by all, and despite the reasoning part we all have, there is another part that longs for the exceptional, the greatness and the 'different' approach that the Steves of this world take...even if that remains beyond the reach of almost all others.

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers….”