We all know that Apple CEO Steve Jobs is a revered figure in the consumer electronics industry for pushing the envelope and getting filthy rich doing it.
But does the magic of Apple product success hide a poor business manager?
Can one bad apple spoil the bunch?
In a post on his "Practically Radical" blog on Harvard Business Publishing's website, entrepreneur and author Bill Taylor lays down why Steve Jobs' legacy is not unlike criticism of Apple products: much hype, less substance. Initially praising Jobs for the products Apple designs and the "near-religious devotion" instilled in its fans, Taylor goes on to say that Jobs has created revolutionary impact with "unappetizing and downright retro" management tactics.
Jobs, for all of his virtues, clings to the Great Man Theory of Leadership — a CEO-centric model of executive power that is outmoded, unsustainable, and, for most of us mere mortals, ineffective in a world of non-stop change. A Wired magazine cover story from last year made the point well. The article begins with a memorable anecdote — the CEO, in search of a space in the company's crowded parking lot, regularly leaves his Mercedes in a handicapped space, sometimes taking up two spaces. The pattern became so noticeable that employees, according to the article, put notes on his windshield that read, Park Different.
"Jobs' fabled attitude toward parking", writer Leander Kahney says, "reflects his approach to business: For him, the regular rules do not apply." That means shrouding his company in secrecy; treating his employees to tyrannical outbursts; and refusing basic accommodations that would make beautifully designed products more customer-friendly.
Taylor goes on to talk about the "smartest guy in the room syndrome" as it pertains to management at the CEO level. "Humility is not part of the Steve Jobs leadership repertoire — and that's worked out fine for him," Taylor writes, adding that fellow CEOs would be wise not to emulate Jobs' example.
"Don't think you'll do better as a leader by acting more like Apple's leader," Taylor writes. "Trust the art, not the artist."
In his article, Taylor simultaneously takes issue with Jobs' management style and puts it on a pedestal for the success it has brought Apple as a company. But where does one draw the lines? At what point is such behavior detrimental to the company?
ZDNet's own Jason D. O'Grady recently wrote in "Apple's Secret Society" how Apple specifically forbids employees from talking about unannounced products:
Violation is grounds for dismissal and Apple has been known to take legal action personally against the offending employee. Apple closely monitors all communication on its corporate network and routinely plants false information with employees in an effort to track leaks.
O'Grady adds that Jobs' lack of admission to his liver transplant may complicate relations with Apple's board of directors. To me, that's just one more example of Jobs' reported attitude that "regular rules need not apply." Yet CEOs are supposed to be the face of the company, and such actions no doubt reflect poorly on the organization.
If a CEO is successful despite brash management skills, does it matter? Are Steve Jobs' moves a risk to Apple -- or the consumer electronics industry as a whole?