Friday, January 11, 2013

Was Steve Jobs an optimistic leader?

I previously asked the questionIs it possible to lead others without optimism?

This month, Harvard Business Review listed Steve Jobs as the #1 best performing CEO in the World, for delivering a $359B increase in market capitalization during his tenure. He was clearly a successful leader that changed the world we live in, and I appreciate the results Steve Jobs was able to achieve and the products that he was able to create.

If you have read the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, then you might have a hard time thinking of Steve as an optimist. Words that might come to mind are visionary, futurist, genius, innovator, perfectionist, jerk, sociopath, narcissist, and megalomaniac.

In a 2004 interview for Wired magazine, he described himself as an optimist:
"I'm an optimist in the sense that I believe humans are noble and honorable, and some of them are really smart. I have a very optimistic view of individuals. As individuals, people are inherently good. I have a somewhat more pessimistic view of people in groups."
I haven't heard of Steve Jobs being described as having a bright and cheery personality, and he was openly hypercritical of the work that people did. However, he had an optimistic view of the potential for people to do exceptional things and the possibility for Apple as an organization to create insanely great products that could put a dent in the universe.

Is being unreasonable a bad thing?

My favorite words to describe Steve Jobs are passionate, persuasive, determined, persistent, and unreasonable. Most people think of being unreasonable as a negative personality trait, but being unreasonable can sometimes generate positive results. George Bernard Shaw once said:
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Too often, we give in to reason and fail to let our ideas achieve their potential. When combined with determination and persistence, an unreasonable person can lead an organization to achieve exceptional results.

Steve Jobs is a perfect example of the unreasonable man that George Bernard Shaw described. Through his passion and drive he was able to get the best out of people, even persuading them to do what they personally thought was impossible. He would twist the truth and distort reality to match his unreasonable view of how things should be, and he was determined to change the world to make it fit his vision.

Is emotional intelligence a requirement for CEO performance?

Steve Jobs was not an ideal leader from an emotional intelligence point of view. He seemed to have no capability for empathy, and it is possible that he was only out to selfishly make the world a better place that he could tolerate living in. It is hard to make a case for Steve Jobs as a humanitarian. Regardless, he was effective in terms of leading Apple to do great things and to deliver products of exceptional value through his unrelenting passion and drive.

According to the a New York Times article, In Praise of Dullness, research has shown that people skills have little correlation with whether a CEO is successful or not. It says, "warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s."
"Traits like being a good listener, a good team builder, an enthusiastic colleague, a great communicator do not seem to be very important when it comes to leading successful companies. What mattered, it turned out, were execution and organizational skills. The traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours."
Maybe this explains why Steve Jobs was so successful as the CEO of Apple? Is this just a harsh reality that we need to accept, or should we expect more from ourselves as leaders to deliver exceptional results for all of our stakeholders - shareholders, communities, families, employees, and coworkers alike?

See what the FBI had to say about Steve Jobs in their 1991 background investigation for a position in the US President's Export Council:

Steve Jobs delivered insanely great results, but was he a great leader?