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Steve Jobs and Rough Edges

Steve Jobs and Rough Edges

I don’t know much about Steve Jobs. I’ve never been a connoisseur of Apple products, and I’ve read little of the commentary about Jobs from before or after his death. A recent article in Harvard Business Review, however, has got me thinking about him, and reflecting on the impossibility of ever neatly defining “great leadership.” (See “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs” by his biographer Walter Isaacson, in the April 2012 issue.)

Steve Jobs apparently had some rough edges – great impatience, prone to angry outbursts, controlling tendencies, behaviors that some would call bullying. If he were not who he was, and instead some mid to upper level leader in another organization, I can easily imagine his superiors bringing in a coach to help him smooth out those rough edges. And yet, as Isaacson points out, these same characteristics were integrally connected to his success at Apple and the extreme pleasure his customers get from the products he and his company created. And, Jobs inspired great loyalty in many of the people who worked for him, in part because of his impatience and controlling insistence on perfection. Isaacson quotes one as saying, “I consider myself the absolute luckiest person in the world to have worked with him.” So, who’s to say whether it would have been a good thing to smooth out those rough edges? At what cost?

So, what’s a leader with some rough edges (and who doesn’t have some of those?) to do? Do you try to smooth them out? Do you give up on ever changing yourself and figure that people can take the bad and the ugly along with the good?

If you’re a leader committed to your own development, it seems to me that the key to all of this starts with simple awareness. Not a checklist of the qualities of great leadership – because who could agree on what should be on the list? And what one person could embody such a checklist, anyway? Not to mention that human beings are incredibly complex creatures, and that for most of us, our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses.

But if we can be aware – of our strengths and our weaknesses, of what circumstances turn one into the other, of our impact on others – then we have something to work with, because awareness leads to choice. And the broader your range of choices for action in any given situation, the more effective you’ll be as a leader.

I have no idea how aware Steve Jobs was, nor of the choices he made about his own leadership. It does seem to me, based on the little I know about him, that he was completely himself, with no apologies. And whether you like him and his products or not, it’s hard to argue with the assessment that he drove amazing innovation, rough edges and all. So how can you be completely yourself as a leader, with rough edges, and still hold open the door to growth and improvement? Here are some ideas.

  1. Practice awareness. Pay close attention to the actions that come easily to you, what’s harder, and what you avoid doing completely. And then pay attention to the results that you get. How do you impact others, positively and negatively? What are you able to make happen, or not?
  2. Have many measures of success. One of the points Isaacson makes in his article is that Steve Jobs may have alienated and upset people, but he also inspired loyalty, elicited excellent performance from others, and built a successful company that makes beautiful products. If you only have one measure of success for your leadership, you’re bound to miss something important.
  3. Identify where you want to expand your range of choices. When you begin to examine your actions, your impact, and your results, you may see areas where you’re limited by the choices for action that are currently available to you. Decide where you want to grow.
  4. Honor your complexity. Recognize that results that you want and results that you don’t want can flow from the same behaviors and qualities. Make it your goal to expand, not to change.
  5. Get help. Find a mentor, a friend, a colleague, or a coach who can help you increase your repertoire of skillful action.

Following these steps won’t make you Steve Jobs, but it will make you a more skillful leader. And it just might make you more fully yourself, as well.

How have you practiced awareness as a leader, and what have you learned about yourself?

Photo courtesy of Richard Wood, Flickr Creative Commons

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