Steve Jobs leadership

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Published by
Jan Hills
September 12, 2015

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There is a long tradition of leaders learning from other famous leaders. Hundreds if not thousands of books have been sold on this premise. Steve Jobs is one of the great leaders of our time but can adopting his leadership practices really help you lead better? Jobs’ biographer has been dissecting his insights and defending Jobs from many critics now writing about his rather tough leadership style. In the 90’s this was called ‘tough love’ but this expression seems to have gone out of fashion. None the less there is something to be said for the approach that gets exceptional things done and bonds talented people to the organisation. But I too am known to be unforgiving of mediocre performance so I guess I would say that wouldn’t I?

I have to confess I am rather sceptical about how much reading about a leader will help other leaders to lead. There is some value as a role modelling exercise but real role modelling only works if you can get enough detail to understand the purpose and beliefs of the leader. With Jobs’ that might be possible as he has been documented and his thoughts recorded extensively. In an article in the HBR 14 practices were listed as characterizing Jobs leadership success. This is too many to remember and certainly too many to live your life by especially if it means adopting new habits. The conventional wisdom is we can hold 7 pieces of conscious information at any one time although more recent research is questioning this number.  We have found people can hold about 4-5 things in mind and practically use them in business. By ‘practically use them’ I mean can coach or assess people against them, or can monitor their own performance against them.

In our work creating Success Profiles for companies we see patterns of success factors appear time and again. Even though the whole profile is unique to the company, certain factors seem to distinguish the most successful across a number of companies. The most consistent are a clear sense of Purpose, focus and being agile; that is able to shift between the big picture and the details or one plan and another, the final factor is something akin to what Steve Jobs called Stay hungry stay foolish. We see it as a striving to continue to grow, learn and do a better job even when others think you are doing a great job already. Carol Dweck calls it a Growth mindset you can read more in one of my other articles in the link.

Another point we have learnt in working to help people develop new behaviours and skills is to pick one thing at a time to change or add to your skill base. Master it and then move onto the next. That will be far more successful in the long run. After all Steve Jobs didn’t start with all the traits in the article, he created who he was through relentless practice of what he believed in.

But maybe the best advice to take from Steve Jobs, apart from ”live every day as if it is your last” is the quote at the end of the article. “…the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do”.

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