Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Is Steve Jobs A Model C.E.O.? Level 5 Leadership.

Steve Jobs remains the flavor more than a month after his passing. A manager in a Fortune 500 firm gifted a copy of Steve Jobs's eponymous biography by Walter Isaacscon to each one in his team. I do not know the exact reasons as to why he did it. I surmise he felt enamored about Jobs's life story and felt his team could learn a thing or two from that eventful life and career. True there is much to be learnt from Jobs and there is much more to be wary off too.

Jobs was a classic iconoclast. His obsession over design and simplicity are all now regurgitated endlessly (including yours truly). Just last week I was looking at a Sony laptop and the word that came to my mind was "ugly". I had been using Macbook Air for over 3 weeks. Other laptops were grotesque. The good old PC towers are declining now its mostly the "all in one PC" made famous by the iMac design. Steve Jobs has a patent for the glass panels he designed for his flagship store in New York. He also holds a patent for the unique staircase in that store. He would not hesitate to delay a product release if he was not satisfied. He rejuvenated Apple and brought it back to life from near certain death. Apple is now frequently trading places with Exxon as the most valuable company on Earth on market capitalization terms. Jobs has upended decades worth understanding of consumer behavior. A college dropout was feted by Ivy League universities. Yes, there are lessons to be learned there. But, how often do we learn the correct lessons? Jobs had another side that could be summed up in one word "JERK".

Let us overlook quibbles like whether he was less than generous to Steve Wozniak or his friends. Many subordinates recall one trait of Jobs. Whenever an employee offered an idea mostly Jobs would call the idea stupid and the employee an idiot (laced with expletives of course). Two weeks later he would come back and repeat the idea like it was his own. The employee would have to meekly agree. For a man who threatened to go 'thermonuclear' with Google over Android OS, that he called stolen from Mac OS, its strange that he would shamelessly palm off ideas. He was a genius but not above swiping an idea.

During Jobs's first stint at Apple he had to be bridled by a person recruited to be CEO. The CEO's prime responsibility was to baby sit Steve Jobs the irascible genius whose very genius was threatening to derail the company he had founded. Later in a coup, one tailor made for a movie, the CEO and the board joined hands to oust the founder.

At Pixar, another company Steve Jobs resuscitated from the brink, Jobs would run up huge expenses insisting on arcane coloring of machines. The furniture and architecture ran up bills that any CFO would not just lose sleep but bring in the board to rein in. Again his genius revived the company but his passion also came close to destroying it.

No management book would endorse Jobs's actions as manager, much less as CEO. With all due respect Jobs died too soon before his time. Android phones have overtaken iPhones. MacOS is still a minuscule market share. iPod's are being threatened. Can we place Apple in the league of Coca Cola or IBM or GE? Not just yet. Coca Cola and IBM are around for 100+ years. It takes more than one individual to build a company like that.

Jim Collins, guru in analysing companies and author of "Good to Great", wrote in Harvard Business Review about what kind of a CEO delivers great results. The article's title sums it up "Level 5 Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve". Collins wrote "our discover of Level 5 leadership is counter intuitive. Indeed its counter cultural". Collins brushes past celebrity CEO's like Jack Welch, Lee Iacocca and offers, 'shy, awkward, shunning attention' Darwin Smith, CEO of Kimberly-Clark. Level 5 leader, Collins sums up, "builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will". Level 4 leader is one who "catalyzes commitmment to and vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision; stimulates the group to high performance standards".

Isaacson often refers to Jobs's "reality distortion field" referring to Jobs's ability to make people do what they thought was impossible for them to accomplish. Jobs is clearly Level 4. Nothing beyond. Level 5 leaders are those who took their companies to great, delivering "cumulative stock returns at or below the general stock market for 15 years, punctuated by a transition point, then cumulative returns at least three times the market over the next 15 years". Apple has had a great decade after the turning point what lies ahead in the next 5 we don't know yet.

Even Jack Welch the most celebrated CEO is being re-evaluated and many wonder how much of GE's growth was due to him and how much to the overall economic climate which was the most prosperous period in post war USA. Jack Welch's divorce papers showed a typical greedy arrogant CEO who had bargained for outlandish benefits from an awe struck company that thought he was God.

Jobs could afford doing the unthinkable reschedule of a major product release chasing perfection. Facebook CIO says she does not have the time for perfection and in her line of business its better to bring a 'good enough' feature quickly to market. This shows the pitfalls of learning about Jobs without carefully considering his context. That pitfall applies any exercise in analogy. Failure to analyze and map two situations clearly to test whether they are analogous is the most common folly of all.

For a man who felt scarred for being given up to adoption as a baby Jobs was remorseless about abandoning his first girl friend and his daughter. Jobs paid for her education and tried to make amends but she in turn bore the scars he himself carried.

Much is made of Steve Jobs's famous address to Stanford grads advising them to remain "foolish and hungry' going after their passions. Once addressing a classroom of Stanford students he asked the girls how many of them are virgins and he asked the class if they had done drugs. As a self confessed LSD taker he felt that such rebelliousness, losing virginity or taking drugs, is what makes them different and become a creator. About his famous rival, Bill Gates, he would stingingly say that Gates "had no imagination" and would ruminate that Gates might have made better products had he "dropped acid". All of that makes good reading but if followed would be dangerous. Millions have lost their lives doing drugs and millions of teenage women have ruined their lives due to teen pregnancies. College grads chasing dreams with no plan B end up as wastrels or in Occupy Wall Street shrieking inane leftist bromides.

Steve Jobs practically commissioned this biography, primarily, so his young kids would know their father after he is gone. He knew very well that he would not live to see his book. Isaacson interviews Bill Gates several times especially about the famous Jobs-Gates rivalry. Gates had beaten Jobs in the market yet Gates is gracious in his admiration for Jobs. Jobs on the other hand is in no mood for grace, he rubs it in that Gates was uncomfortable in technology and is now 'comfortable doing philanthropy'. Even Isaacscon notes the absolute lack of grace. Jobs wanted to reach from his grave and rub dirt onto Gates's nose.

Learn from Steve Jobs, but very carefully. 

No comments: