Steven P. Jobs, one of the most successful chief executives in corporate history, once said he never thought of himself as a manager, but as a leader. And his notion of leadership revolved around choosing the best people possible, encouraging them and creating an environment in which they could do great work.
Jobs, who said on Wednesday that he was stepping down from the chief executive post at Apple Inc., said in an interview shortly after he returned to the company in 1997 that his leadership style had changed over the years, as he grew older himself and matured.
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In his early years at Apple, before he was forced out in 1985, Jobs was notoriously hands-on, meddling with details and berating colleagues. But later, first at Pixar, the computer-animation studio he co-founded, and in his second stint at Apple, he relied more on others, listening more and trusting members of his design and business teams.
In recent years, Jobs’ role at Apple has been more the corporate equivalent of “an unusually gifted and brilliant orchestra conductor”, said Michael Hawley, a professional pianist and computer scientist who worked for Jobs and has known him for years. “Steve has done a great job of recruiting a broad and deep talent base.”
At Pixar, with a solid leadership team in place, the studio never missed a beat, and continued to generate one critically acclaimed and commercially successful hit after another, including “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E”, long after Jobs had gone back to Apple.
It is by no means certain, analysts say, that things will go that smoothly for Apple. Jobs, they note, was far more in the background at Pixar. There, the major creative decisions have been guided by John Lasseter. Pixar was sold to Disney for $7.4 billion in 2006.
At Apple, Jobs’ influence is far more direct. He makes final decisions on product design, if not in detail. No immediate changes, analysts say, will likely be discernible.
“The good news for Apple is that the product road map in this industry is pretty much in place two and three years out,” said David B. Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School. “So 80-90 % of what would happen in that time would be the same, even without Steve.
“The real challenge for Apple will be what happens beyond that road map. Apple is going to need a new leader with a new way of recreating and managing the business in the future.”
Jobs’ hand-picked successor, Timothy Cook, who has been the company’s chief operating officer, has guided the company impressively during Jobs’ medical leaves. But his greatest skill is as an operations expert rather than a product-design team leader—Jobs’ particular talent.
At Apple, Jobs has been the ultimate arbiter on products. For example, three iPhone prototypes were completed over the course of a year. The first two were tossed out, failing to pass muster by Jobs’ exacting standards. The third prototype got his nod, and the iPhone shipped in June 2007.
His design decisions, Jobs explained, were shaped by his understanding of both technology and popular culture. His own study and intuition, not focus groups, were his guide. When a reporter asked what market research went into the iPad, Jobs replied: “None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”
The notion of “taste”—he uses the word frequently—looms large in Jobs’ business philosophy. His has been honed by a breadth of experience and by the popular culture of his time. When he graduated from high school in Cupertino, California, in 1972, he said, “the very strong scent of the 1960s was still there”. He attended Reed College, a progressive liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon, but dropped out after a semester.
When discussing Silicon Valley’s lasting contributions to humanity, he mentioned the invention of the microchip and “The Whole Earth Catalog”, a kind of hippie Wikipedia, in the same breath.
Great products, Jobs once explained, were a triumph of taste, of “trying to expose yourself to the best things humans have done and then trying to bring those things into what you are doing”.
Yoffie said Jobs “had a unique combination of visionary creativity and decisiveness”, adding: “No one will replace him.”
©2011/The New York Times