Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Steve Jobs and The Bobby Knight School of Leadership

by David Aaker

I believe that Steve Jobs was among the best CEOs of this generation because he created entirely new categories six times in a decade, and built the largest company market cap ever. Yet two recent and excellent books (Inside Apple, by Adam Lashinsky and Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson) describe a management style that was disturbingly harsh.

To understand Jobs's success, I find it helpful to look at the success of Bobby Knight, the fabled basketball coach at Indiana. Knight was one of two coaches to win over 900 games, won the NCAA championship three times, and was the national coach of the year four times yet had a management style similar to Jobs (described in detail by John Feinstein's book A Season on the Brink). What are the common success characteristics shared by these two? Before answering that question, it is useful to elaborate the two management styles.

Jobs's treatment of employees and partners has been described as brutal and even cruel. He routinely denigrated the ideas and accomplishments of employees, expected a commitment to work but seldom appreciated loyalty, arbitrarily fired people, disregarded the feelings of others, excluded people from "secret" projects, routinely took credit for the accomplishments of others, and did not allow others to have a public face. It is the very opposite of the supportive and nurturing Theory Y management pioneered by MIT's Douglas McGregor over a half century ago.

Knight's treatment of players has been termed abusive. He shouted, pushed, denigrated, humiliated, threatened, and harped on faults. Other coaches were loud and negative but Knight took it to a whole new level. He was so cruel that a key job of assistant coaches was to council distraught players to ignore what he said. Among his many examples of loutish behavior was throwing a chair across the basketball floor during a game. After many warnings, he was ultimately fired from Indiana 28 years after being accused of choking a player.

Knight and Jobs shared four common success traits that seem more obvious when looking at the two together.
  1. They were incredibly knowledgeable and insightful. Read the rest of the HBR article

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