Steve Jobs: Great Salesman, Terrible Leader

Steve Jobs

What is your definition of leadership?  We can usually recognize a good leader, or at least people we enjoy working for, but few of us have really fleshed out a true definition of leadership.  Are leaders born or made?  Are leaders inherently ethical?  Is there a real difference between leaders and managers?  Although a plethora of questions surround our understanding of the concept, there is one thing that most people would agree on: Steve Jobs was a great leader.

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Let’s get a few things out of the way.  Steve was a genius.  He was a visionary.  His work at Apple and Pixar has left a lasting impact on the world.  I greatly respect Jobs as a professional, and love my Apple products.  Admittedly, I haven’t partaken of the purported ambrosia that is the Apple Kool-Aid, but I still recognize and respect how Steve Jobs’ influence has changed the world.

Whenever I speak to a room of undergrads or young entrepreneurs, I generally start by asking them to list a few great leaders.  Sometimes someone wants to challenge the status quo and will list Hitler.  Many name their favorite president.  But sooner or later, someone always lists Steve Jobs.  And then, I can launch into my standard presentation:  Jobs was a great salesman and a terrible leader.

Leaders lead people.  They don’t lead companies, they don’t accomplish tasks, they move people forward to accomplish the vision of the organization.  Steve Jobs was an incredible outlier in that he was able to accomplish amazing things even though he was terrible to his people.  I’m not an outlier.   You probably aren’t an outlier.  And if either of us want to be leaders we’d better look to different examples.

If I described a leader who took sole credit for team accomplishments, disregarded professionals in his organization, made unreasonable demands, threw temper tantrums, and belittled his followers, there would be general agreement that we don’t want to follow that individual.  Yet, if we attach these attributes to Jobs we recognize him as a visionary leader who single-handedly saved a multi-billion dollar company.  While I don’t disagree with Job’s success or influence, the vehicle he used to get there was salesmanship, not leadership.

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Think of the iconic picture of Jobs in his jeans and black mock turtleneck unveiling the life changing addition to the Apple product line: a tablet called the iPad.  It was innovative!  It was revolutionary!  And it was 10 years behind Microsoft’s unveiling of a tablet computer.  The specs were certainly better, but that was more due to the passage of time than any kind of innovation.  It was extraordinarily limited in what programs could be installed.  Yet, it was a spectacular success.

Steve Jobs and Apple took products that were already in existence, made modest improvements, and sold it as revolutionary.  This is a direct result of Jobs’ amazing skill as a salesman.  Yet leaders are not called to simply sell a product, they are called to get the best out of their followers to move the ball forward for the organization.

What do you think? Was Jobs a tyrant? Was he, among many other things, also a great leader of people? Let us know on Facebook or in the comments below.


About Kris Browning 6 Articles

Kris is a valued contributor to the publication. His thoughtful insight into the logic of human jurisdictional systems provides a focused clarity for understanding the events impacting our world. Kris is an ordained pastor currently finishing up his Ph.D in Organizational Leadership.