What Steve Jobs Can Teach Us

Frederick W. SchmidtLast week Steve Jobs announced that he would be taking a leave of absence from the day-to-day management of Apple. The Wall Street Journal article reporting the story linked to a recording of the D(igital)8 conference at which Jobs was interviewed.

Reading the article and listening to the interview raised some questions for me about leadership, vision, our collective life, and spirituality. Some of the issues raised for me were triggered by the near apoplectic spasm that hit the press when Jobs made the announcement that he would be taking a leave of absence. Other issues were triggered by the interview. But both were interrelated.

At the heart of those interrelated issues is this question: "What do we believe in?"

That might seem like an odd question to raise in connection with the leadership task.  On the face of it, leadership appears to deal with the concrete challenge of changing things. Belief seems to be a static set of convictions, while leadership seems to be about moving people and organizing systems.  Belief appears to be a purely cognitive, abstract affair. 

In fact, however, what we believe shapes our understanding of leadership, and it shapes what we expect from our leaders.

The difference in what observers believe and what Mr. Jobs believes was apparent in the reporting that I read.

  • The observers believe in Mr. Jobs.
  • They believe in the cult of the individual. 
  • And they believe in their fears: 
    • The fear that the company cannot survive without Mr. Jobs
    • The fear that something as large and as creative as Apple Computer, Inc.  is the work of one man
    • The fear that a singular bright spot in a bad economy can be easily erased

Mr. Jobs, by contrast, doesn't share his admirers' beliefs at all.

  • He believes in the creative vision of the Apple (that's what brought him back).
  • He believes that the company (which was "90 days from bankruptcy when I returned") was worth saving.
  • He believes in the creativity of the people who still worked there when he returned.
  • He believes that together they saved the company.
  • He also believes that the reason the company has flourished is because its employees strive to make intelligent, strategic decisions with a view to creating quality products that people are willing to buy.

The differences are telling:

  • Mr. Jobs believes in community.  His observers believe in the cult of personality.
  • Mr. Jobs believes in creative capacity.  His observers believe creativity is a volatile commodity attaching to a small number of people.  (Some have described his abilities as "magic," an even more elusive commodity.)
  • Mr. Jobs believes in open-ended creativity.  His observers live in fear that it will evaporate with the work of a star performer.

Those who believe in the cult of the individual will look for a rainmaker. They will make blind stabs at magic, recycle the same old names hoping for magic to strike again (if it struck in the past), run in fear when it doesn't happen, retrench, sell off assets, and then hope to retire before the ceiling caves in.

Those who believe in community and creativity will cast their net wide, looking for leaders and contributors. They will nurture new ones and welcome another generation.  They will think creatively and strategically, invest in the future, sharpen their goals, and act with a confidence that is born of hope.

Both ways of leading are rooted in deeply spiritual perspectives, whether they are recognized as such or not. One perspective is shaped by the specter of scarcity, the other by a vision of abundance. 

What do you believe in? It will shape the way you lead.

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