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To Be or Not to Be Like Steve Jobs?

Nearly a year after Jobs' death, his legacy inspires fierce debate among entrepreneurs.

Was Steve Jobs what every entrepreneur should aspire to? Ben Austen at Wired found start-up founders to be stubbornly divided: He talked to business owners who are such fans of Jobs that they virtually wanted to wear jeans and a black turtleneck to work and also to those who run as far from the Apple co-founder's legacy as possible. Austen nicknamed them the Acolytes and the Rejectors.

What They Believe

"[Acolytes are] businesspeople who have taken the life of Steve Jobs as license to become more aggressive as visionaries, as competitors, and above all as bosses," Austen writes. "They're giving themselves over to the thrill of being a general--and, at times, a dictator. Work was already the center of their lives, but Jobs' story has made them resolve to double down on that choice."

On the other hand, there are the Rejectors. "These are entrepreneurs who, on reading about Jobs since his death, have recoiled from the total picture of the man--not just his treatment of employees but the dictatorial, uncompromising way that he approached life," he notes.

The audience was so polarized because Jobs himself was a mass of contradictions, and not pleasant ones. "Isaacson's biography is full of stories of Jobs as an unpleasant individual--the fits he would throw over the most picayune-seeming details, like the type of flowers in his hotel room or the way an aging Whole Foods barista made his smoothie," writes Austen. "He would park in handicap spaces; he refused to get a license plate for his car. And he abandoned his oldest daughter, applying his 'reality distortion field' to the question of his own paternity."

Jobs or Bust?

To be Jobs or not to be Jobs, that is the question. But the inquiry itself betrays a mistake in framing the issue. There is no either-or necessary. The analysis and discrimination that an entrepreneur should apply to every situation have their place here, too. Why assume that you cannot apply the positive lessons that Jobs offered and then improve on them?

For example, holding a strong standard for how work will be done at a company is a fine goal. But a strong manager will find ways to communicate, and even be blunt, without unnecessarily tearing down someone. You could say to someone, "This really falls short, and it disappoints me because I know you are capable of so much more. That's why I hired you. Go try again." As my co-author Eric Yaverbaum and I wrote in the second edition of Everything Leadership:

Being a leader is a subtle thing. Because of the way institutions work in the world, many of us associate leadership with being in charge. A boss is someone who has authority over others that is granted by a formal relationship within an organization. Supervisors can give orders, and if they lack leadership skills but have some luck, the people in their charge might even listen. Then again, they may not; in reality it's almost impossible to force most people to do what they don't want to do.

That is why leadership is so powerful and necessary. Those who know how to lead don't force others to help them achieve goals. They persuade, inspire, coax--motivate. Leaders are successful because those who follow actually want to.

You don't need to browbeat people to have your business succeed.

Similarly, there is no need to ignore the positive aspects of what Jobs did because you find the sum of his personality to be off-putting. Be demanding, but remember that most people won't live up to your expectations all of the time--including yourself. Instead of getting angry when the world doesn't provide what you want, learn from the mistakes of others to run a better company. Leave credit for those who contributed significant work. And realize that, since family is part of life, if you want to do everything well, that also requires attention.

You can't call Steve Jobs a saint--but it would be equally inaccurate to simply demonize the man. Maybe you don't have to choose; use all the good you can find and improve on the shortcomings instead.

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IMAGE: Newscom
Last updated: Jul 23, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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