Leadership lessons from Apple CEO Steve Jobs

Great leaders like Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs are supreme visionaries and marketing geniuses, says executive leadership expert Paul David Walker, author of Unleashing Genius (Morgan James Publishing, 2008). In order to be better leaders, CIOs need to become more like them.

But beware the leader’s fatal flaw: A fiery ego can send valuable employees fleeing for the door, which may result in a succession-plan vacuum, Walker says.

To become better leaders, CIOs must walk a fine line between understanding and acting upon the extraordinary nature of their geniuses while having the humility and patience that comes with being a subordinate to the CEO.

Walker, a self-described Apple fan, has been coaching executives on leadership for three decades. In an interview, he draws leadership lessons from Apple and Jobs.

What is your impression of Jobs as a leader?

Walker: Steve Jobs is one of the most powerful visionary leaders of our day. He’s highly intellectual and able to stimulate new markets. He has also been able to gain the loyalty of brilliant engineers. That’s really tough because engineers generally think everyone is an idiot but them. Leading a group like that takes a lot of skill.

CIOs also must lead smart technical people. How can they do this better?

Walker: Engineers respect intellectual acumen and cognitive skills. Most engineers have great ideas but no market acumen. Jobs genuinely loves technology and is probably in the upper two per cent of people in the world, in terms of marketing. Engineers respect leaders who love technology and can take their ideas and turn it into a product that sells. In this way, Steve Jobs is an engineer’s greatest ally.

As a leader, Jobs has been criticized for his fiery temper. How does this play into leadership?Walker: Only about five per cent of people can imagine something, play with it in their mind and visualize the outcome. Invariably, a leader that smart doesn’t understand why other people don’t get it because it seems so obvious.When leaders see employees who don’t get it, they get very frustrated and aggressive with them. That can upset people because their egos get challenged. As you know, Rob Johnson, Apple’s retail chief, left. He had created brilliant retail stores. Apple’s vice-president of global marketing and communications, Alison Johnson, left. I just think it’s a weakness that really smart leaders have.Humility is a harder trait to develop. In order to develop a successful succession process, you have to develop some level of humility so that you can have people behind you who can pick up the ball when you leave.

Does lack of visionary leadership explain Microsoft’s apparent inability to innovate?

Walker: Bill Gates was obviously the Steve Jobs of Microsoft. You have a situation now where the number two guy is probably not as visionary or as brilliant as Gates, rather he’s more of an operator. I hate to make a judgment on [Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer], but you’ve got to look at the results. Microsoft is not coming up with great ideas.

Speaking of succession, who do you think should replace Jobs?

Walker: Apple COO Tim Cook is still not on the Board, and you have to ask why. It’s a very different skill to operate a company successfully than it is to create new realities. If Cook is a good operator, chances are he’s not going to be the visionary who can create new realities.Who would I pick? Maybe someone in senior management at Pixar, although I don’t know the team that well.

Why Pixar?Walker: Jobs is a master at branding, marketing and technology. Every detail of his products — I have all of them — is beautiful and elegant. Since Jobs built Pixar, I think the people at Pixar have that kind of training.Sometimes a good leader can suppress both good and bad ideas, but Pixar continues to be highly creative after Jobs left. There must be some leaders there.

What can CIOs learn about leadership from Apple and Jobs?

Walker: Most CIOs tend to be very operational, yet they’re having to become more strategic at the executive table. Technology is now a strategic tool at any company. Most successful marketing is linked to some kind of high-tech invention.

CIOs need to step up and become more creative, more visionary like Jobs. They can come up with ideas to use technology to penetrate markets and improve the performance of the company. CIOs should take some courses in marketing and branding.

The big lesson from Apple is that Apple has shown technology can be cool. CIOs need to figure out how to make their technology cool.

For example, one of my clients at Disney, a technologist, created in conjunction with the CEO a mirror for retail stores. Like Snow White’s “mirror, mirror on the wall,” young girls can look in the mirror and see themselves dressed in a princess outfit. It has become one of the most popular items in the stores.

That’s the future of the CIO.

What about the Apple arrogance factor?

Walker: You don’t have to be arrogant to impress people with your abilities. Leave the arrogance at home because it’s not going to work for you. It’s easier to be arrogant when you’re the CEO. CIOs have to be more patient. But don’t leave the confidence and creativity at home.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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