The Leadership Conundrum

Can you think of an organization that does not want its people, especially its managers, to develop into leaders? I can't think of one. All of my clients ask me for help with this goal.

What does it mean though? What is a leader exactly? Many smart people have studied and pondered this question. And many organizations have spent millions on the quest to develop leaders via readings, courses, competency models, feedback, 360 assessments, executive coaches, and more.

Then along comes a world-class leader who upsets the apple cart of all our thinking. I'm referring to Steve Jobs, the wunderkind CEO who just stepped down from Apple after a turn for the worse in his cancer.

In a very interesting article in Forbes the other day, called "Steve Jobs Broke Every Leadership Rule. Don't Try It Yourself," written by Frederick E. Allen, Jobs' leadership style is described in quite unflattering terms.

Allen quotes Prof. Jeffrey Pfeffer, of Stanford University: “Most books about leadership read like the Scout manual: CEOs and top managers should be authentic, considerate, sensitive, and modest, as well as creative, smart, and strategically brilliant. All true – but not very useful in the real world, where the person in the corner office might be as approachable as the junkyard dog. Exhibit A: Steve Jobs.”

Allen warns: "Go ahead and behave the way he did yourself, as long as you’ve got all of Steve Jobs’ charisma, revolutionary vision, and innovative genius, along with his relentless drive and temper."

Interestingly, Allen notes that, despite Jobs' despotic style, he was beloved by Apple employees: "...his exceptional and unique vision and certainty of what he saw excused his tyrannical behavior. Or, no, they didn’t excuse it but made it necessary. And the power of his personality and the sweep of what he achieved meant that even after all his punishment of disappointing staff and others, all his berating of many of those around him, people at Apple were heartbroken to see him step down from the chief executive’s job this week."

So, what are we to make of this? On LinkedIn, talent management guru Marc Effron asked, What would you (HR Leaders) do with such a person if he were in your organization? Would you counsel him? Send him to a hi-priced offsite course to be "fixed?" Would you fire him?

Or should we throw out our meticulously crafted leadership competency models and leadership development courses, in favor of placing our bets on the most spectacular junkyard dogs on the hi-potential list and elevating them to the C-suite?

When I think about the CEOs that I have known, I'd have to say that many are cut from the Jobsian cloth. They are incredibly smart. Sometimes visionary. Occasionally even charming. As well as self-centered, hot-tempered, and even tyrannical.

Perhaps the lesson from this is that we ought to abandon the Boy Scout approach that Prof. Pfeffer referred to. No matter how much money you sink into development programs, you can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear.

Instead, perhaps we should take our cue from leadership guru Warren Bennis who once defined leadership as "the ability to transform vision into reality." Steve Jobs, for all his flaws, certainly did that, over and over, for Apple. Any effective leader, I dare say, has done what Bennis is pointing to. Otherwise, they would fail and be gone.

In other words, let's focus our leadership development efforts on what leaders do, i.e., on behavior, rather than on becoming some sort of ideal leader that really doesn't exist anywhere.

What do you think?

Posted by Terrence Seamon on Tuesday August 30, 2011


Anonymous said…
I am beginning to agree with the 'throw out the Boy Scout Manual' school of leadership. People who really get things done tend to be a nightmare to work with or for, but in terms of turning dreams into reality, they do the job. Perfectionism, drive, utter self belief are needed for this, but it doesn't make fir a cuddly individual very often.
Terrence Seamon said…
Well said, Chris! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

Marc Effron said…
Great column Terry. The Jobs paradigm should cause us in HR to rethink our mantra that "how" we get our jobs done matters as much as "what" we do. It's probably very true for most of us but not true for all. How much "behavior credit" should we give to brilliant jerks? It's more than 0 and less than 100. But maybe it's time we acknowledge that rough-edged genius is a legitimate behavior model.
Terrence Seamon said…
Marc, These "rough-edged genius" types, whose contributions to the business are often indispensable, can pose a challenge to HR. When their nightmare conduct "crosses the line" and HR gets a complaint, HR faces the What (Results) vs How (Behavior, Process, Style etc) dilemma. It's a polarity that HR must manage for the good of the business. Thanks much for stopping by and leaving a comment!
Evan said…
I see this a bit differently. I would agree that we throw away the BS Manaul, but in the end we also need undestand that as good a visionary or get it done type of person the leader is, he/she are only as affective as the people they are leading. If they have vision, passion, intelligence, and all around "mad skills" but they can't move people or that can't inspire others then what good is all the rest?

I would argue that for all the "tyranical" aspects of Jobs leadership, he obviously has the ability to move people in a positive and productive way or else Apple would be a rotten core sitting in some garbage at this point.

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