How to Make Sense of the Outstanding Success of Steve Jobs’ Leadership Style?


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Are There Are Any Flaws In Today’s Hot Theories on Leadership?

What does it take to cultivate strong relationships with the folks that you find yourself leading/managing? Is there a specific personality (style) that is most effective at leading? Put differently, is there a specific mask that one needs to wear in order to be effective in the exercise of leadership?

As I listen to the folks in HR, and those that talk leadership, it occurs to me that a specific approach is being advocated: be nice to folks, listen to them, don’t lose your calm, delegate/share power, make them feel they matter. If this is the case then how is it that Steve Jobs is held up as one of the most effective business leaders of all time? Steve Jobs, at least what I know of him, was not the exemplar of this approach.

We can ignore anomalies, breakdowns/holes in our existing take on reality, or look into them, explore and learn. Today, lets take this breakdown to see what it might conceal. As it happens this was a matter that I was grappling with whilst I found myself incapacitated for 4-5 weeks. I’d like to share with you what showed up for me. I invite you to listen to the words of Douglas McGregor as spoken in his book The Human Side of Enterprise (bolding mine):

Many subtle behavioral manifestations of managerial attitude create what is often referred to as the psychological “climate” of the relationship. During childhood ….. each of us acquired a high level of skill in perceiving aspects of parental behavior which told us whether everything was “all right with the relationship. Even very small children are amazingly sensitive to quite unconscious manifestations of parental attitudes of acceptance or rejection...

Granted that the subordinate’s dependency is far less in the employment relationship, it remains materially true that his ability to achieve his goals is materially affected by the attitudes of his superiors….. The climate is more significant than the type of leadership or personal “style” of the superior. The boss can be autocratic or democratic, warm and outgoing or remote and introverted, easy or tough, but these personal characteristics are of less significance then the deeper attitudes to which his subordinates respond.

What Do You Get When You Swear At, Drive, Discipline, Dictate At Those You Lead?

Let’s continue this conversation by listening to Douglas McGregor share an anomaly that he encountered at a manufacturing company (bolding mine):

The mechanical superintendent in a small manufacturing company was the prototype of the “bull in the woods” manager. He swore at his men, drove them, disciplined them, behaved superficially like a Napoleon. He was the despair of the staff group who were carrying on a program of supervisory training in human relations. Yet, oddly, his subordinates appeared to have high regard to him. They said, “Oh is bark is worse than his bite.” Morale and productivity in his department were both high.

Let’s stop here for a moment and reflect. Here we have a real life example that goes against the conventional wisdom of human-relations – at least the wisdom advocated by leadership gurus, and HR advisors/practitioners. What is going on? How is it that someone who swears, drives, acts like Napoleon calls forth high regard, morale and productivity from the very folks he is swearing at, driving and disciplining? I say we are back to Steve Jobs and the question that I posed at the start of this conversation.

Is Effective Leadership Limited to Creating a Deep and Satisfying Emotional Certainty of Free Treatment?

I invite you to listen some more to the words of Douglas McGregor (bolding mine):

Probing revealed some significant facts. He was known as a “square shooter” who dealt with his men with scrupulous fairness. Despite his superficial toughness he was sincerely and warmly interested in his subordinates. When they were in trouble – whether it was a simple matter of a few dollars to tide a man over until payday, or a family crisis – he helped out in matter-of-fact way that left no uncomfortable feeling of being patronised.

Most important of all, he was known to be ready to go to bat for his men on any occasion when he felt they had not been accorded a fair break by higher management. The men spoke with awe of two occasions during a ten-year period when he had stormed into the office of the big boss to demand that a decision be altered because it was unfair to “his boys.” When he was refused in one of these instances, he resigned on the spot, put on his hat, and left. His superior actually followed him out to the gate and capitulated.

Douglas McGregor concludes his take on this superintendent and his leadership/management style with the following words of wisdom:

His managerial attitude cuts across authoritarianism, permissiveness, paternalism, firmness and fairness, and all the other “styles” of management to create a deep and satisfying emotional certainty of fair treatment.

It occurs to me that Douglas McGregor’s take on leadership/management accounts may just account for the success of Steve Jobs as a leader/manager. From what I have read, Steve Jobs surrounded himself with A players: those that showed up as A’s were treated as As, those who did not were pushed out.

I Find Myself Disagreeing With Douglas McGregor. Why?

How is it that I find myself left uncomfortable and in disagreement with Douglas McGregor? I say that the ground upon which the exercise of human-centred leadership occurs is ‘care’: genuine care for the wellbeing of one’s ‘boys and girls’. Care is more than fair treatment. And is illustrated by this superintendent in two ways. First, when “his boys” were in troubles he helped out “in a matter of fact way that left no uncomfortable feelings”. Fair treatment in the workplace does not require one to lend money to the folks you are leading or help them out with family crises. Second, he resigned. Fair treatment would require that the superintendent go to bat for his boys – to make the case. It does not require one to resign. So how does this resignation show ‘care’? It occurs to me that it shows the other (usually hidden side) of care: care for one’s stand in relationship to what will and will not stand for. In his case, the Superintendent was not willing to stand for anything less than fair treatment for “his boys”. I bet that “his boys” were proud to be called “his boys”.

Enough for today, I thank you for listening and wish you the very best.

Maz Iqbal
Experienced management consultant and customer strategist who has been grappling with 'customer-centric business' since early 1999.


  1. Maz: there are a few notable examples of tyrannical autocrats who lead teams and appear to have loyal followers. They have found success, in part, because they possess rare brilliance and have a tenacious focus on a goal that others have bought into. Steve Jobs arguably fits into that category. I contrast that type of leader with cult figures who are coercive, and thrive by having subordinates who willingly outsource their entire self-esteem to an authority figure.

    Despite his lack of many basic interpersonal skills, Jobs was highly effective as a leader. This has caused a confusion for many aspiring leaders, who think they have license to emulate his abrasive style. In Jobs’ case, his brilliance overcame his foibles. Without that brilliance, he would have been just a jerk.

  2. Hello Andrew,

    I thank you for entering into this and thus creating an opening for a conversation.

    Let’s accept that Steve Jobs did not embody the features that are being promoted by the folks that talk leadership/management. Let’s accept that the label ‘jerk’ can be hung comfortably around Steve Jobs’ neck. The question is why did intelligent folks, in California, hang around and work or Jobs – for long periods of time?

    We are talking about California one of the most developed, wealthiest economies in the world where tech talent is sought after and well rewarded. So there cannot be a shortage of jobs for the talented folks who worked for this ‘jerk’.

    We are talking about a guy who was dismissed from Apple. So stuff about his personality, style, his obsession etc was knowable for those who wanted to know about it. So when he came back to Apple, and did what he did in the way that he did it, then why did folks hang around and accept this – for years?

    The central question, and anomaly, is why did talented folks who had options, many options, choose to stick around and work for Jobs rather than go elsewhere and work for other folks who were not tyrants/jerks?

    The answer to this question, may just suggest that the fashionable theories about leadership/management are missing some piece of the puzzle. Could it be that Jobs stood for something that called to the the talented? Could it be that this tyrant/jerk stood for, and accepted, nothing less than perfection/excellence and this appealed to the talented folks who worked for him? Could it be that he was a tyrant/jerk who rewarded the talented folks with that which resonated with these talented folks: a challenge worth waking up for, work that was intrinsically meaningful, recognition for great work, a community of the like minded, and handsome rewards for those who delivered? Could it be that he was a tyrant yet a tyrant that treated folks fairly?

    I say that we can either ignore anomolies and stick with conventional wisdom. Or we can see anomalies as evidence of a rupture in the dogma of conventional wisdom. It occurs to me that there may be more to effective leadership and management than that which is espoused by today’s leadership industry.

    I wish you the very best and thank your for your contribution.

    With my love,


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