wpostServer: http://css.washingtonpost.com/wpost2

The Leaderboard

Most Read: National

From the Blogosphere

Jena McGregor

Jena McGregor

Staff writer Jena McGregor teases out the leadership issues in the day’s news.

Tom Fox

Tom Fox

Guest contributor Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, writes weekly about issues in the federal workplace.

Lillian Cunningham

Lillian Cunningham

Lillian Cunningham is the editor of On Leadership and writes features for the section.

Post Leadership
Posted at 08:33 AM ET, 08/25/2011

Steve Jobs: A pioneer in a risk-averse business world

Apple Inc. Chairman and CEO Steve Jobs waves to his audience at a 2011 Apple event at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater in San Francisco. (Jeff Chiu - AP)
Steve Jobs did not die on Wednesday. He stepped down from being CEO of Apple.

But much of the world’s response to Jobs’ resignation, which was shared with the world in this letter, felt so nostalgic, so commemorative, so borderline maudlin, that it was almost hard to remember that the Apple founder is still very much with us. Not only will he remain Chairman of the company, but an involved one, I’m sure.

There’s a reason for all the mournful, end-of-an-era tributes. Yes, people love their iPhones and iPads and MacBook Airs. But I believe people also realize what a rare thing a leader in the mold of Steve Jobs is among today’s CEOs. In a world of number-crunchers and managers, operators and sales men, the business world is woefully short on visionaries and pioneers.

All too often, the word “leader” in business today is used interchangeably with “manager”-someone who runs and operates a company well. Leadership development programs today extol managers to treat their employees well, their customers like gods, and their business plans, to a certain extent, like open books. Current leadership thinking applauds flat hierarchies, egalitarian cultures, and consensus decision-making. In most large corporations today, being a good “leader” means little more than turning in good numbers, motivating staff to perform well, and successfully implementing an often safe strategy that’s gotten Wall Street’s stamp of approval.

Steve Jobs is not known for most of these things. Yes, Apple’s numbers have been spectacular lately-but for many years, they weren’t. (As a former Apple CFO said to BusinessWeek in 1998: “The $64,000 question is: Will Apple ever resume growth?”) Jobs, known for his micromanagement and penchant for tirades, motivates his employees not through touchy-feely perks and empowerment, but through “messianic zeal.” And he does not, unlike most CEOs today, believe customers have all the answers.“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups,” he once said. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
In this June 7, 2010 file photo, Apple CEO Steve Jobs holds the new iPhone 4 during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. (Paul Sakuma - AP)

Most of all, he has ignored the safe, short-term thinking that guides many CEOs and satisfies Wall Street (for now) in favor of long-term, pioneering vision about product design, consumer tastes and industry disruption. He was laughed at for the mouse, a tool now more ubiquitous than Windows. He shocked observers for dumping the floppy disk drive from the iMac. When the iPod debuted, analysts fretted that its price was too high for customers. And the iPad-which Apple now sells as fast as it can make them-has been thought of as risky.

The response to Jobs’ resignation--in the media, on Twitter, by Apple fans--can feel overwrought at times because most know there are many people, not just one man, who make Apple products what they are. But it was Jobs that made it ok for his company to create not just products, but objects of desire. It was Jobs who dared to not just respond to customers’ wants, but create them.

What’s sad about Steve Jobs’ resignation isn’t just that there will never be another Steve Jobs to run Apple. That’s obvious. What’s sad is that there are too few leaders in his mold--true pioneers, passionate innovators, risk-taking taste makers--in today’s business world.

By  |  08:33 AM ET, 08/25/2011

Read what others are saying

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company