The resignation of Steve Jobs has been dominating much of the news recently. In some ways, this attention is to be expected given that he was the CEO of the most valuable company in the world, was responsible for a great deal of innovation in the consumer technology sector, and had an extremely devoted following. But some of what I’ve read recently makes it sound as if the guy has died. Is it really necessary to publish Steve Job’s best quotes? They make it sound as if he is never going to speak another word to the media or public. Even worse, a church vicar is quoted as saying “I’d like to meet him in heaven and say ‘Thank you.’” What about meeting him on earth and telling him how much he means to you? He’s still here.
While there is no doubt that Steve Jobs deserves immense praise for his leadership at Apple, I am torn as to whether to bring him up in the classroom. The reason is because – as far as great leaders and entrepreneurs are concerned – he seems to be an anomaly. His leadership style contradicts much of the leadership research and what we teach in the classroom.
Most leaders are not able to take a company from two employees to 50,000. Instead, the organization usually goes through a series of leaders, based on who is best equipped to steer the company through the challenges it is facing at each particular stage of growth. Most start-up firms that have grown into Fortune 500 firms have needed to change leaders to continue thriving. For example, Cisco booted out its founders because the board of directors felt that they were not qualified to take the organization to the next level.
Most leaders do not create the vision for the firm and play a detailed role in most aspects of its implementation. Instead, leaders set a vision, communicate it, and work at a high-level to assist others in implementing the vision and institutionalizing any cultural changes required to do so. This empowers people at all levels within the organization and leverages their talents in helping implement the vision. Imagine what Southwest Airlines would be like if the CEO had to show each flight attendant how to serve drinks, smile and tell jokes. Instead, part of the Southwest charm is that the employees are empowered to do things the way they see fit – as long as it leads to happy customers.
Most leaders are not creative geniuses. Instead, leaders are typically very research-oriented and data-driven when it comes to figuring out what the right strategy and vision is for their organization. And, lastly, most leaders are not seen as the soul of the company. How many other Fortune 500 CEOs can you name? I suspect it is not more than ten.
Of course, this begs the question of whether Apple will continue to thrive without his leadership. I doubt much will change over the next few years. Some argue that Apple will continue to thrive without Jobs at the helm because he has created a culture that will allow Apple’s streak of producing innovative products and services to continue for many years (e.g., Why Apple Doesn’t Need Steve Jobs). In fact, Apple hired a prominent management scholar and former deal of Yale’s business school to head up its efforts to infuse a bit of Steve Jobs into all Apple employees so that they can emulate how he thinks and makes decisions.
Others say that it is very difficult, or maybe even impossible, to replace someone whose fate was so intertwined with the company’s fate (e.g., Apple’s New Guiding Lights). I tend to side with this latter camp. Take a moment to think about your impression of Apple. I bet that whatever you think of will include Steve Jobs. We expect Jobs to release all of Apple’s new products and we give him standing ovations when he comes onstage to do so. We expect Jobs to directly respond to our concerns about Apple products (e.g., antenna issues with the iPhone 4, location tracking concerns with iPhones and iPads, etc.). I doubt it is possible for anyone else to be so revered. And this presents a huge challenge for the firm. It is as if the followers of a particular religion are being asked to change gods.
Of course, only time will tell what will happen to Apple. All we know for sure is that they have some very serious challenges ahead of them.
Dr. Atul Teckchandani
CSUF Entrepreneurship Professor