by Tom Irvine
There must be more blogs about Steve Jobs than there are apples on earth. But here goes. I am prompted to blog about Steve Jobs as I saw in the last couple of weeks that his biography by Walter Isaacson came out in paperback. I got the hardback as a Christmas pressie in 2011 and found it both fascinating and troubling. I keep the book on my bookcase just outside the kitchen with the front cover facing you as you walk past – I like that it challenges me to think about leadership and success and how the two are both illusive and hard to sustain.
The ‘leadership luvvies’ will hate this book – it describes the genius of Jobs but also talks about his bullying and obsessive behaviour. I loved it from cover to cover. The biography was authorised by Jobs and he was interviewed many times for the book. He however had no editorial input into it, but seemingly obsessed about the front cover that would be used. Isaacson interviewed shedloads of people – fans and critics of Jobs – in the writing of this book and it shows in the range of opinions about his style and approach.
I won’t go through the many successes of Apple and the products that he inspired. Who needs to – they are all around us? I must say however that I still fondle my old iPhone 3 as it is just so tactile. Maybe there is a group I could join to help me with this?
What I do want to do in this blog is two things – firstly to muse about the challenges of managing ‘talent’ and secondly about how you could ever imagine leading someone like Steve Jobs through ‘change’.
Jobs has been described as volatile and obnoxious – but he helped create products that had simplicity, utility and beauty at their core. He stole, bullied, denied being a father to his illegitimate child, refused to shower frequently in his early days, and cheated his friends. This young hippie, truth-seeking, tech-savvy hothead was obsessed about the beauty of products and their functionality and ease of use.
It would be a cheap joke to equate the behaviour of Jobs to that displayed by colleagues in the Academy. But I like cheap, as long as it is cheerful. Imagine being a dean who is just about to commence a ‘performance appraisal’ with a Jobs-like character. It would go like this: “Well Steve, I’d like to talk with you about how things are going with your post-docs.” You can imagine the response. But at the Leadership Foundation we hear all the time the challenges that leaders (particularly academic leaders) have when trying to have that ‘difficult conversation’. If this is an issue for you then you might be interested to know that at the Leadership Foundation we are just about to publish a major piece of research on *performance management – have a look at our website for details.
The other challenge would be being led through change by Steve Jobs. He must have had people around him who could translate his vision in a business reality. You don’t employ 700,000 people in China without being able to organise a business process, or review it to ensure that it is fit for purpose. Nevertheless ‘change’ would be an interesting challenge in a business that had SJ at the helm.
Leaders in higher education face being asked to lead increasing amounts of change – and many involve colleagues who sometimes show greater loyalty to their academic disciplines than they do to the institution. This makes leading change in higher education uniquely difficult in my view. I met with a vice-chancellor recently who said to me: “I don’t mind what academics do as long as it is excellent.” Maybe that is the key – Steve Jobs may have had an obsession with being ‘excellent’ and maybe that carried the day. A focus on excellence – whether it be in teaching or research – is however not a simple thing to carry through. If change is becoming so pervasive and the challenges ever present, then perhaps a focus on excellence will lead to a greater chance of success.
Tom Irvine leads the Leadership Foundation’s Consulting team.
*Performance management approaches in UK HEIs, by Monica Franco-Santos, Mike Bourne and Dina Gray of Cranfield School of Management will be published by the Leadership Foundation in November.