Kathryn Cave (Global) - Steve Jobs: The Model of Inspirational Leadership

Kathryn Cave discusses the success of Steve Jobs' leadership and what epitomizes the ideal model.

The day after the 1999 film "Pirates of Silicon Valley" was released, actor Noah Wyle (who played Steve Jobs), was sitting at home in his living room when the phone rang. "Noah?" said the voice at the other end of the line, "Yes," answered Wyle, "This is Steve Jobs."

Wyle told CNN Money that his heart started beating through his shirt. Jobs continued: "I'm just calling to tell you I thought you did a good job. I hated the movie, I hated the script, I think if you had spent a little more time and a little more money and maybe a little more attention to detail, you could have had something there. But you were good." The only response Wyle could think of was: "Thank you, sir."

I wonder if the exchange above epitomises the essence of inspirational leadership. Maybe it explains how Jobs managed to get away with his much publicised offensiveness for all those years? Perhaps these three sentences neatly summarise an approach to management, leadership and business. If Wyle's memory is to be trusted, those roughly 50 words make it clear that Jobs is a hyper-critical thinking man with power; they demonstrate that he can easily be harsh - but all this simply intensifies the value of his praise.

The nub is surely this: if Jobs was pleased, you would be desperately happy because he was not indiscriminate; maybe arbitrary, but not indiscriminate. Perhaps the dubious take-away for managers and leaders is that once you've convinced others that you know what you're talking about, you can be as nasty as you like because you've already proved yourself? You don't have to be of course, but you can be, and people will still respect you.

When Robert Sutton was researching his book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, he found a troubling volume of Silicon Valley leaders believed that Steve Jobs was living proof that being an asshole boss was fundamental to building a great company. The debate has intensified since Steve Jobs' death and the publication of his biography by Walter Isaacson, which revealed so much more about him.

Jobs may have been unbelievably vile to deal with, but his employees valued his opinion and cared deeply what he thought. This is critical, because leadership itself can be perceived as a particularly emotion-laden process. In an organisation, the leader's mood has some effect on his/her group. One theory is that leaders transmit their moods to other group members through the mechanism of emotional contagion.

But theory aside, what skills do organisations really need to thrive? In a recent survey to our lists we asked which skills professionals thought were lacking from their environments. The interim findings, based on a survey of 343 IT decision makers from Europe showed 23% felt creativity was lacking; whilst 40% felt senior technical skills were missing. This is interesting, though not surprising, as when people are asked what they feel is missing they will tend to focus on tangible things like "money" for example, rather than intangible things like "happiness".

The same could be said about qualities like "inspiration", "innovation" and "creativity". It is hard to say exactly what these are and even more difficult to guarantee what they will deliver. The fact is, unless you're in one of those creative ad agencies with funky chairs and exciting slides down to the car park, ‘floaty' qualities can be impossible to talk about with any real meaning. Would more "creativity" at your workplace make it better? I imagine it is difficult to say until it is there.

So what is inspirational leadership? In a recent article about Richard Branson, Forbes contributor Carmine Gallo jotted down what he felt were the seven secrets. This was the typical marketing-style checklist consisting of: igniting enthusiasm, navigating action, selling the benefit, painting a picture, inviting participation, reinforcing optimism and encouraging potential. Whilst I don't for a minute doubt all this is correct, I do wonder if Steve Jobs' example could provide a more prosaic answer: demonstrate you know your business and make others strive to impress you. The more successfully it is done, the more you inspire (on a sliding scale).

This is far easier said than done of course, and most people simply can't deliver like Jobs could, which might be why inspiring leaders are so few and far between. Maybe the best thing to do in conclusion is simply quote Jobs, "Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led."

By Kathryn Cave, Editor, IDG Connect