No Steve Jobs at Apple? How Dependent Should an Organization be on a Single, Charismatic Leader?

So, the man who changed the face of technology in the world multiple times has stepped down. Steve Jobs was certainly one of the most highly regarded CEOs of all time. He was, no doubt, one of the most well known. There will be lots of speculation about how well Apple will do without him at the helm (Just can’t resist those military metaphors). But a deeper question for organizational leaders is just how much influence should the leader have on his or her organization. Is it healthy for the organization to have a dynamic leader whom everyone looks to for inspiration? For direction? For permission? For forgiveness? It is hard to argue with the success of Apple Computer. By almost every measure, they are successful. But most of us don’t have a Steve Jobs at the top. There is no question that Steve Jobs is intelligent, brilliant, maybe even a genius. But, is he a great leader? I think that question is sill pending. If Apple prospers now that he has stepped down, I say his leadership was good (despite the temper tantrums and so forth).

If Apple goes into the doldrums, I think we must question his leadership. Great leaders always have as their goal the creation of an organization that will flourish without them. Dependency is the enemy of true greatness. So, can Apple survive without Steve Jobs’ “Reality Distortion Field”, his infamous ability to get people to buy into seemingly impossible ventures? No one knows. But, the broader question for the rest of us, who are not geniuses, is how much dependency is healthy or tolerable in an organization? Start-ups are often extremely leader-dependent, but as they grow it is reasonable to assume that they have a better chance of survival if they become less and less dependent on the leader for guidance. Too much dependency creates several problems for organizations:

• Team members become less willing to think for themselves. One of the benefits of team-oriented leadership is that people become more creative and resourceful. If they are constantly second-guessing themselves (“What would Steve do?), they limit their ability to “think different.”

• Communication becomes constricted. If everyone has to “run the idea by the boss” before proceeding, the channels of communication become overloaded and eventually, the whole system slows down.

• The organization becomes risk averse. People stop taking risks and that may lead to the inability to take advantage of opportunities. No risk equals no growth.

• Resentment builds. Even in organizations with benevolent leaders, too much dependency leads to feelings of being underutilized, undervalued, and stifled, etc. So, even if the leader truly has the best interests of the organization and the team members at heart, failure to let them make their own decisions will undermine the enthusiasm that really steve jobs success leadership style skills trainingmakes an organization work.

• Vulnerability. No matter how smart or capable the leader may be, he or she is still a human being and can make mistakes. If the entire success of the enterprise is tied up in a single individual, one mistake can cause the whole thing to collapse. Or, if that individual becomes incapacitated or dies, it may not be able to recover.

All leadership training should emphasize the importance of reducing dependency in the organization. One of the most common complaints I hear in leadership training workshops is, “My team leader wants to ‘micro-manage’ every little thing that I do. It drives me crazy.” So, what steps can be taken to make sure that your organization does not become overly dependent on its leader?

• Make sure that everyone in the organization has a shared vision of what the organization is all about. That is not the same as a “vision statement” that is posted on the company bulletin board. One of the best discussions of this can be found in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. There he says, “When there is a genuine vision (as opposed to the all-to-familiar ‘vision statement’), people excel and learn, not because they are told to, but because they want to. But many leaders have personal visions that never get translated into shared visions that galvanize an organization…” The way to achieve this is, of course, to include the team members in the creation of the vision. A lot of hard work, but essential to developing a truly high performing organization!

• Delegate tasks, responsibilities and authority. Let people do what they were hired to do. Let them make a few mistakes, learn from them and grow. Back them up if they get into trouble. Don’t just let them take the fall. Don’t delegate tasks without the authority to follow through. Nothing is more frustrating than having lots of responsibility but insufficient power to make decisions.

• Create powerful teams. When designing teams, make sure that everyone who can impact the process is included on the team. In manufacturing, teams should include operators, supervisors, engineers, production control and maintenance people. Anyone who could potentially create an obstacle for the team should be a member of the team. Let the teams do as much as possible from identifying the need, to brainstorming solutions, developing and executing the plan and assessing the results.

• Institute an effective upward communication system. If the team is designed properly from the beginning, there are many problems that they can solve on their own. But, there will always be a few things that are outside their scope of authority or expertise. There should be a systematic, responsive, procedure for elevating those issues and getting them resolved in short order. If an issue is elevated to management and a decision made at the higher level, the team should, however, still have the authority to declare the issue open or closed.

Develop a culture that values independence and innovation. Don’t rely on secrecy, punishment, or control to lead the organization. Make sure that people understand that creative, unusual, even risky ideas will be taken seriously and that they will not be punished or mocked for trying something different.

• Reduce the number of rules. One element of every problem solving effort should be to examine the rules and see if one or all of them can be modified or eliminated.

• Open the books. With the exception of private human resource issues, proprietary technical information or security issues and such, the costs and plans of the business should be everyone’s business. Work to make the employees partners in the enterprise.

• Do a good job of succession planning. No one should be indispensable, including you. There should always be someone waiting to step into every important role should the need arise.

• Stop giving so much advice. As leaders, you should learn to listen first. Don’t be so quick to tell your people how to fix a problem. Let them work on it themselves. There is little risk and much to be gained every time a team member is able to solve a problem on his or her own. Listening is a skill that can be learned and developed. Make sure that developing listening skills is a priority in every leadership training process that you incorporate into your organization.

Dependency is often the result of fear. By giving team members more real authority, the leader is afraid that: “They won’t do it right. They will undermine my authority. They will see me as weak. They will take the organization in some direction that I don’t like. I will feel like a failure. Etc.” Those fears are normal. Often, however, they prove unfounded. Certainly, people sometimes take advantage of newfound freedoms, but most of the time, under the right conditions, the advantages of giving people more autonomy far outweigh the dangers. Even at Apple Computer, the absence of Steve Jobs may not matter as much as many believe. In an article in a Harvard Business Review blog, James Allworth, Max Wessel, and Rob Wheeler say, “We believe they’re all missing the point. Jobs has managed to perform the ultimate feat of leadership — he’s embedded himself so deeply within the cultural fabric of Apple that the company no longer needs him.” Maybe a better way of saying that is that the culture is strong enough to continue the vision of innovation without the ever-present influence of its founder.

So, for those of us who are not geniuses, let’s plan ahead. Let’s create an organization that will be just fine without us. It may be a blow to our ego but you know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do.

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