Musthafa Ebadi
Was Steve Jobs A Good Leader?
by Musthafa Ebadi on December 26th, 2011

Over the last 6 months I have read and researched extensively about Steve Jobs. I have now posted two blog posts, one on his legacy and another on what I thought about Steve Jobs’ accomplishments after reading his biography.

There’s no doubt that Steve Jobs will go down as one of the most creative, visionary, and high-impact people of the century. Steve single handedly reshaped not just one but four industries that transformed our lives: computing (the Mac), movies (Pixar), music (the iPod), and mobile communications (the iPhone). In the process Apple also created a customer base whose loyalty is borderline devotion.

One question that I didn’t answer in my previous posts is if I think Steve Jobs is a good leader or a good manager? And the answer to that would be No! Over the last 6 months while I have learnt that Jobs was a genius and someone who created a dent in our universe, I have also learnt that he wasn’t a great manager and certainly not a good leader!

Why? Below are the five reasons why I don’t agree with Steve’s leadership/management style:
1. Micromanager:

Steve Jobs was obsessed with controlling everything that happened in his organization. From design to integration of hardware and software, marketing, and what type of applications can be allowed in app store Steve wanted to control every aspect of his business. While this type of control could have resulted in breakthrough products it drove his direct reports and engineers at Apple nuts.

At times micromanagement might be required to keep your B and C players focused and on their toes but if it’s a trait in your management style you will never be able to retain A+ players thus always running a mediocre team. One of the qualities of A+ players is that they are very passionate, they know how to get something done, and do it very well. If you start micro managing them it will lead to frustration, chaos, and lack of interest. Initially you will get a below par performance from them which often will lead to you losing them for good.
A leader will always develop leaders under him and not followers. Steve couldn’t develop a single leader and continued to micro manage which is the worst form of management.
2. Ego Centric:

People close to Steve Jobs thought that he felt a strong sense of abandonment due to his adoption. This propelled him to consider himself special, i.e. not required to follow norms of regular people. His ex-girlfriend Redse even thought that he had narcissistic personality disorder.

It was all due to Steve’s big ego. And while having ego isn’t always ultimate destruction for an average person, it’s a cardinal sin for a leader. One of the basics of leadership is that leadership is not about you but rather about your people. In Steve’s case it was all about him.


An amusing story about his employee badge showed his false sense of entitlement. On Apple’s formation employee badge number #1 was assigned to Woznaik and #2 to Jobs. Steve demanded badge #1 and when he didn’t get it, he asked for badge #0. He kept the badge, though Bank of America still processed his salary as employee number #2.

Steve’s ego-centrism drove Apple in murky waters. He wished to project the image that he didn’t work for money and took a salary of $1 per year as CEO. In 2000 when the board offered him $14 million stock options, he refused and asked for a plane. Subsequently, he demanded $20 million stock options. He received backdated stock options and although he didn’t make any monetary gains from it, Apple got some negative publicity as SEC investigated the case.

3. Intimidating

Intimidation can be a tool in your tool kit that you should very rarely use to motivate people however Steve Jobs used it as one of his main accessory. He unblinkingly stared intensely at others and kept them silent for a long time to unnerve opponents.

Steve voiced his unedited opinions without the normal social graces that caused many of his teammates to breakdown emotionally and his frequent unfiltered scathing comments were hurtful and created a fear factor. Although, known to be emotionally intelligent, he was unrepentant of mistreating others.

A leader gets the best out of his people through listening to them, valuing their opinion, engaging them in decision making, and appreciating their efforts and hardwork. They resort to intimidation very rarely.
4. Manipulation:

According to Steve’s Biography everyone thought Steve Jobs was a master manipulator. Sometimes, for him there was no difference between truth and lies. Bud Tribble one of his teammates said Steve doesn’t accept facts, which do not fit, into his picture. He said, “Steve has a reality distortion field. In his presence, reality is malleable.”

Apple employees though knew they had a difficult boss, still considered themselves lucky to be working for him. He inspired people to do what they thought was unachievable. Most probably because manipulators are great at cajoling, persuading and flattering people into complying with their wishes.

However, this did create a dysfunctional culture in Apple. Due to his oscillating behavior, his staff handled him like fragile glass. Most probably, Apple lost quite a few top performers because of this treatment given to them.

A true leader never manipulates since their credibility is the ultimate quality their people cherish. Once a leader loses his/her credibility it’s almost impossible to get it back, and manipulation is the easiest way to lose it.
5. Hard on people:

To say that Steve jobs was hard on his people would be an understatement. He was more than often too hard on his people. Steve believed that either your work was genius or was $h!t. Steve himself was a perfectionist and if some project or product didn’t meet his “insanely great” standard, the product was a piece of $h!t and the guy was a bozo. His colleagues referred it to as “hero/shithead dichotomy”

For example one morning while Steve came to office and reviewed code that one of the Apple programmers had programmed for 22 consecutive hours without a blink of sleep Steve berated the guy for it not being "perfect" instead of appreciating his marathon shift and commitment to apple.

There is some merit to be hard on your people if they continue to cross the line or continue to slack and perform below their potential but that should only be done after you have exhausted all you other options. Employing it as your main source of managing might get you short term results but it will definitely lead to demotivated, uninspired, and frustrated workforce.
Now you might ask if Steve Jobs wasn’t such a good manager or leader how he built the most valuable company in the world in less than 15 years. To me there are two reasons he was able to do that:

First, apart from his bad leadership/managerial qualities Steve Jobs was a genius and had other phenomenal qualities that overshadowed the above qualities. You can read more about Steve Jobs’ genius in my previous post: Did Steve Jobs Create A Dent In Universe?

Second, although Steve was a horrible boss to work for his people had the pride and passion of working for Apple. Like with most of its customers the name Apple is just not a name but rather is a borderline devotion to its employees.

The above two reasons played an instrumental and ultimate role for Steve Jobs to transform Apple from a money losing machine to the most valuebale company on earth, and create a dent in our universe.

Thanks for reading.

As usual comments and questions are welcome!


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