Sorry, But You’re No Steve Jobs

Today is Apple’s 36th anniversary. Appropriately, there was an amusing article in the March 30 Wall Street Journal (Bio as Bible: Managers Imitate Steve Jobs) that described managers who take their admiration of the Apple co-founder beyond inspiration to imitation.

Mindless repetition of another’s actions in hopes of repeating their success may work for a simple task, but not for something as complex and artful as leadership.

Not a new phenomenon

Blatant imitation in the quest for success is hardly a new phenomenon. When I joined the business world in the 1980’s, GE chairman Jack Welch was widely regarded as the prototype for the modern manager. There were a number of factors that contributed to his success, including his contribution to a strong internal culture of developing leaders throughout the company (not to mention the tail wind of a strong economy and stock market during much of his tenure).

But for much of the public and the popular press, he was known simply as “Neutron Jack” in a wry reference to the neutron bomb for his ability to eliminate mass amounts of people while leaving their buildings intact. Welch was not alone. “Corporate raiders” like Carl Icahn, arbitrageur Ivan Boesky, junk bond LBO king Mike Milken and later “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap all grabbed headlines for their particular brands of  cost-cutting to “unlock shareholder value”.

Their ethos was personified in the star of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street– Gordon Gecko, who famously proclaimed that “Greed is good“.

Regardless of the unpleasant (and at times illegal) activities of some, there was a core of truth that many firms and many industries had become bloated with non-productive assets and expenses.

Imitation Without Integration

But other managers blindly imitated these activities, often without  broader context.

Suddenly, managers of every level thought that the key to the corner suite was cost cutting. Never mind that some of those costs were actually investments in their firms’ very future– infrastructure, key activities and key people whose disappearance could prevent paying customers from becoming, well, paying customers any more. Let alone loyal, raving fans.

A unique version of this played itself out in the banking industry too. For sure there were too many competitors with too many expenses to be supported in an efficient market. That’s a big reason why the total number of banks has been cut in half in the past 22 years, as I discussed in my March 26 post Is Bank Merger Mania Imminent?

The New Corporate Buzzwords

But now, the corporate buzzwords that seem to be in favor are some of those favored by Steve Jobs– “innovation”, “ecosystem”, “product focused” and “obsession with perfection”.

Those are all fine traits in the right context, but simply lifting them out of Steve Jobs’s biography and forcing them on your team blindly is not necessarily going to lead your company to become the most valuable in the world.

I recently spent some time with a senior executive who confided to me that her colleague was driving her crazy with his obsessive attention to all the wrong details while major issues have been left unattended. Knowing I can default to sports analogies when trying to make a point, she smiled and said “Let’s put it this way– his team is only scoring two field goals a game, but he’s obsessing over the right shade of color on the uniforms and the selection of halftime music.”

Worse, he had recently read Jobs’s biography and was now using it to justify his unproductively obsessive behaviors.

After all, he was just trying to make the company “insanely great”…

“Sorry, but you’re no Steve Jobs” she wanted to tell him.

Most of us probably aren’t.

Be You Instead

It’s great to pull inspiration from other successful people, but you have to channel that inspiration in a way that is consistent with who you are, and in a way that works for your team.

There was only one Steve Jobs.

Be you instead.

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