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There is no single way of defining leadership. Most of the definitions stress the principal position of the leader in the team or organization, his range of tasks, as well as the most likely outcomes in the case when the leader is successful at performing his or her activities. Thus, it is possible to compile the most generalized notion of a leader as a person who, by setting directions for the people surrounding him and by providing the necessary help in following these directions, helps others to achieve certain goals, either established by him or universally praised. However, this definition bears many similarities with other leading positions in the business world, such as managers.
Many authors, like Daft and Marcic (2008, p. 414), stress the differences between leaders and managers, naming the rationality and analytical skills as secondary for a successful leader compared to inspiration, creativity, “soul,” and “vision” as key qualities. Defining leadership with some elusive and fleeting, yet powerful and influential traits is a common trend, probably because they often exhibit unbelievable success which sometimes cannot be explained.
Probably one of the best illustrations of this phenomenon was Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple. His story is well known nowadays, like the one of extraordinary success: during his first term as a CEO he has managed to create an outstanding company out of nothing, and from his return in 1998 till stepping down in 2011 he has revolutionized several industries, like personal computing, phones, and music, and arguably gave rise to several more, like tablet computing and digital distribution.
Walter Isaacson, writer, journalist, and the author of Jobs’ biography, tells in his book that Steve was initially drawn to art, but has become an electronic geek later in his life and that this unlikely blend of a talented engineer and a visionary artist is responsible for his tremendous success (2011). While his engineering genius is what may be the partial explanation for his success, it is the artistic side of his personality that is responsible for his tremendous success as a leader.
The varying definitions of leadership
Different researchers name different sets of attributes for successful leadership. There is no single way one can become successful in this field, and, as a result, there is probably not a single positive trait that was not mentioned as important to a leader. Instead of recounting all of them, we’ll review the ones named most often, and analyze their manifestation in Jobs’ career based on the available sources.
Steve Jobs as an exceptional leader
Confidence is the easiest example. While caution and calculation are valuable for safe and stable development, it is the confidence that, when correctly applied, produces the most astounding results. In the case of Jobs, it was confidence in the brink of audacity that drove his company forward at all times, but of even greater importance was his ability to project it onto his employees. A famous anecdote states that during the development of Gorilla Glass, Jobs responded to someone who said such a product was impossible “Get your mind around. You can do it.” (Blumenthal 2012, p. 240) This method is the example of the transformational strategy, which suggests that the charismatic leader transforms his subjects with his influence and inspiration (Avolio & Yammarino 2013, p. xxvii).
But with confidence Jobs also projected his expectations upon his employees. He was demanding and sought results in all activities, to the point where he was thought of as being strict and borderline cruel. At the same time, his employees recall that Steve was also respectful to those who stood up to his demands. From the viewpoint of leadership framework, this can be characterized as the transactional theory: he essentially created, either consciously or subconsciously, a tangible system of reward and punishment to make sure everybody knew what to expect for their performance (Antonakis & House 2014). While being a simple and obvious technique, it is rarely organized in a way that does not annoy the workers, yet Steve has managed to do it.
However, not everyone felt good about his strictness. Some remember him as arrogant, unreasonable, overconcentrated on details, and fickle. While probably true, these negative traits are overshadowed by his strong points. This may serve as a valuable lesson. Zenger (2013) argues that the majority of leaders focus on eradicating their weak points and still end up unsuccessful. On the other hand, many exemplary leaders, Jobs included, show tremendous success but at closer inspection reveal weaknesses and uneven development.
In other words, many of them emphasize their strengths and make the best use of them instead of focusing on eliminating their weaker sides. The case of Jobs is virtually a perfect example of this.
The latter can also be considered an argument in support of the contingency theory. The unique sum of traits allowed Jobs to effectively lead the company to its height and become legendary in terms of his management and visionary skills. However, with several negative traits that he possessed, it is possible that he would be unsuccessful in a different position. In other words, it is arguably the combination of a person’s traits and a suitable environment that defines a good leader.
In all, Steve Jobs possesses all the traits that are commonly cited as necessary for a good leader. While some of them, like vision, could fall within the management domain, others, like the ability to inspire or the skill to keep the pace of the company and maximize the employees’ capabilities without annoying them, have granted him his legendary status.
Antonakis, J & House, J 2014, ‘Instrumental leadership: measurement and extension of transformational–transactional leadership theory’, The Leadership Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 746-771.
Avolio, B & Yammarino, F 2013, Transformational and charismatic leadership: The road ahead, Emerald Group Publishing, London.
Blumenthal, K 2012, Steve Jobs the man who thought different, A&C Black, New York.
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Daft, R & Marcic, D 2008, Understanding Management, Cengage Learning, Mason.
Isaacson, W 2011, Steve Jobs, Simon and Schuster, New York.
Zenger, J 2013, The big lesson about leadership from steve jobs. Web.