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What You Can Learn from Steve Jobs

By revitalizing Apple Computer, Steve Jobs proves that there's nothing like a charismatic leader when times are tough. But could all that charisma backfire when the good times roll?
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There's nothing like a charismatic leader when times are tough. The question is, who's the best leader when the good times roll?

All I know about Steve Jobs--the good and the bad--is what I read in the business press. But based on that, my recommendation to Apple's board of directors would be to show Mr. Jobs the door. That's correct. I maintain that the man who snatched Apple from a funeral pyre with the iMac and the "Think Different" ad campaign, the genius who's now toting a tangerine-colored iBook around by its built-in handle, is about to wear out his welcome in Cupertino. How can I say that? Easy. Just look at the facts: As of this writing, Apple's stock has been climbing for seven consecutive quarters, and its corporate coffers, once emptied by mismanagement, are bulging with more than $3 billion in cash. Newsweek reported in August that Apple has nearly quadrupled its consumer market share (to about 12%) since Jobs reclaimed the helm. To gild this lily, Jobs is, once again, the most-talked-about person and most-photographed face in Silicon Valley, which is why I fear for the guy. That's right--the turnaround, the technological achievements, the kudos, the spotlight are all creating too much calm and tranquillity for the entrepreneur whose psychological fuel for building his empire (remember that Super Bowl commercial?) was to hold IBM up as the enemy he needed to destroy. Think about this: Jobs initiated a rapprochement with Bill Gates. Bill Gates! Just how much of a good thing can Jobs tolerate?

The genius of Jobs
To his credit, Steve Jobs, the enfant terrible widely reputed to be one of the most aggressive egotists in Silicon Valley, has an unrivaled track record when it comes to pulling development teams through start-up hell. Using monomaniacal zeal and charisma, he's a natural Pied Piper in an industry littered with good ideas that have been killed by bad managers. In Accidental Empires, an exposé of Silicon Valley's movers and shakers, Robert X. Cringely commented on Jobs's first stint as Apple's CEO: "Like the Bhagwan driving around Rancho Rajneesh each day in another Rolls-Royce, Jobs kept his troops fascinated and productive. The joke going around said that Jobs had a 'reality distortion field' surrounding him. He'd say something and the kids in the Macintosh division would find themselves replying, 'Drink poison Kool-Aid? Yeah, that makes sense.' "

But Jobs, like virtually all charismatic leaders, also has a well-documented dark side that causes him to mutate from mesmerizing allure to sadistic perfectionism, often without discernible provocation. According to many reports, Jobs's habit of dressing down subordinates helped get him booted from Apple when John Sculley was managing the company. Which brings me to my unsolicited advice to Apple's current board of directors that although they did well to exploit Jobs's charms during salvage operations, they must now pull the plug before his arrogant and demeaning interpersonal style undoes all the good he has done.

Getting ROI from a charismatic leader
The major advantage of having Jobs on the job (forgive me) during uncertain and anxious times is his capacity to dispel feelings of ambiguity. With the exception of grief, there is no feeling more emotionally disruptive than the helplessness induced by not having a sense of direction or purpose in life. And the "reality distortion field" that leaders like Jobs bring to ambiguous times is just what the management doctor ordered.

Lacking a capacity for doubt, Jobs returned to a moribund Apple and alleviated the pain it was in by presenting an action plan that forced people to do something designed to make a bad situation better. His approach may have been ludicrous--in the final accounting many charismatic leaders see their vision proved wrong--but the fact that he initiated coping behaviors was enough to instill in Apple's workers the sense that the future was in their control. Even Jobs's much-maligned tendency to castigate coworkers has value in times of stress. A dressing-down doesn't instill a feeling of control, but it does typically generate action, which, once in progress, leads to an enhanced sense of being able to determine one's fate. Contrast those feelings with the ones evoked by "the paralysis of analysis"--catastrophic visions of the future, plunging self-esteem born of inaction, self-doubt--and it becomes clear why one Steve Jobs at the helm of a foundering ship is worth more than a boatload of Deepak Chopras.

So, why put an asterisk on Jobs's value as a leader?
The problem I foresee for Jobs is that both he and Apple's board will once again fail to appreciate that the value of his brand of charismatic leadership depends on its context. When crises threaten to overwhelm an organization, the usefulness of an egomaniacal leader is unparalleled. The rules change radically, however, once a business is established and develops an integrity of its own. A self-confident workforce basking in prosperity and "we beat the bastards" pride seeks autonomy and credit for success, something charismatic leaders are loath to offer. Furthermore, psychological security will embolden people to take risks on their own, and unless charismatic leaders switch from command-and-control to empower-and-encourage management, they are sure to alienate those who were once loyal to their cause. Apple stock is now worth real money, and Apple executives have real market value. How long will a recently rejuvenated VP of anything tolerate one of Jobs's tongue-lashings in light of his or her economic cushion and the opportunities that beckon elsewhere?

Last updated: Oct 1, 1999




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