Wired Magazine just published this worthwhile read, The Story of Steve Jobs: An Inspiration or a Cautionary Tale?. It asks whether Jobs' thorny, authoritarian approach to leadership should be emulated. It's a good article, but it misses a big point: Jobs success may not be due to his rude-boy style. It may be more attributable to his entrepreneurial vision and the historical moment in which he lived and created.
Henry Ford also built an incredible company. Like Jobs, he was uncompromising. He broke conventions. It was a bold, brilliant move to pay his workers more, buffeting the advice of his board. By all accounts, Ford demanded the performance of others that he demanded of himself. Yet he was also an infamous anti-semite and basically toxic human being.
In both cases, Ford and Jobs, I'm not sure the right question is: 'is being an asshole an effective leadership style?' The staggering success of both companies had very much to do with both leaders seeing where civilization was going and responding with clear, entrepreneurial visions. The horseless carriage and personalized, mobile computing, respectively.
Don't misunderstand me. I support leaders being tough, demanding and exacting, and for not suffering fools. Leadership is not about being liked or being nice. Yet heralding Steve Jobs' success based on the fact that he was, by most accounts, willing to chew through people, is the wrong conversation.
Why? Leadership is about leading change. And leading change means leveraging the inspiration and skill not only of individuals, but of teams. When inspiring others, fear has its place, but it's a lousy tool, and contributes to a terrible culture. Leadership is about being respected and admired.
There is a rule we use in my company, The Law of the Lid. It states that “a team can never sustain a level of performance higher than the ways of thinking and acting of its leader.”
For most of us in leadership positions, being a toxic leader is a bad strategy. Generally sooner rather than later, we run headlong into the consequences of our abusive standards. It comes in the form of failure. Unless we can buy our way out.