The Steve Jobs Leadership Dilemma

I watched the Steve Jobs movie this past weekend in the hopes of being inspired as a leader. Instead I walked away confused.

In the movie, Jobs describes himself as a conductor. Essentially, he claims to bring out the best in each of his employees, and he keeps everyone working in sync to produce the most harmonious result.

Then the movie gives us an example of Jobs “conducting.” Minutes before a major announcement, an engineer reveals that the computer isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. Jobs is irate–he insists that the computer must do this thing.

This is where it gets interesting. Jobs says that if the engineer doesn’t fix the computer, he is going to reveal the engineer’s name in front of the entire crowd of tech media. Essentially, he’s going to throw the engineer under the bus in such a way that he’ll be the laughingstock of the tech world.

Under this extreme pressure, the engineer proceeds to find an unorthodox solution: He swaps in a more powerful processor…one that doesn’t even belong in the computer as advertised. The computer works, and Jobs is happy.

Is this good leadership?

On one hand, Jobs’ method worked. He motivated the engineer to find a solution. And we don’t know for sure if he would have followed through on his threat.

On the other, what a terrible way to treat a fellow human being! Does the result outweigh the cost? It seems like a line has to be drawn somewhere–which side of the line does “threatening to ruin a person’s career” fall on?

What do you think? Is this good leadership?


14 Responses to “The Steve Jobs Leadership Dilemma”

  1. emmalouklues says:

    Really good topic πŸ™‚ Jobs fascinated me and I think the ends vs. means discussions are always interesting. This story specifically reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

    The idealist in me says you can find ways to push people and challenge status quo without being a jerk. But the realist in me says I cannot prove that the engineer would’ve gotten to that creative and wacky result any other way. I certainly don’t operate that way, but I can’t argue with his results. Do you think that engineer resented him or was thrilled with his moment of triumph and innovation?

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Emma: Thanks for sharing that comic strip. I’ve certainly experienced the creative benefits of last-minute panic. πŸ™‚

      In the movie (spoilers), we weren’t really shown the engineer’s reaction, but he sticks with Jobs for years after that, so perhaps that’s telling in some way?

      • emmalouklues says:

        Maybe! I don’t think Jobs is anyone to aspire to, and again I have no desire to try those tactics or see them used more. I am just curious about the idea that I can’t say “it doesn’t work”. But I want to πŸ™‚

  2. Phongodin says:

    Not good leadership. I agree, he got the result delivered in the short term. What is the long term result? My guess, is that he lost the respect of that engineer, and by extension, any engineer that one talks to. People don’t often quit jobs, they much more often quit managers. Any employee who is looking for an exit from a job, is unlikely to be giving 100%. So he delivered a project, to the detriment of not only his relationship with a key engineer, but also other potential employees to replace that engineer should they leave, which it’s likely they are looking to do, meaning they are not producing as much as they could be. An underperforming employee with no one to replace them, is a tough position for a leader to have put themselves in. Plus he was a bully.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      It’s interesting that you use the word “bully,” because it certainly seems to fit the way the movie portrays Jobs. Like you said, I can’t imagine that type of behavior inspiring the team as a whole in the long term.

  3. Joe Pilkus says:


    I can yl you as someone with 22+ years of service in the Air Force, coupled with a dozen years of civilian government service , this is the worst display of leadership. Leaders should inspire, not cause fear. They should raise one up, not pull one down. As a Captain, I had to brief an SES, a member of the Senior Executive Service, and after he looked at his Blackberry…not once; not twice (they teach you a lot about patience in the military), but the third time, I stood up and left. As I left the office, he had the audacity to say”I thought you were briefing me?” to which I responded, “When I can have your undivided attention, let me know.”

    I do not abide bad leadership…poor management, maybe, but leadership should truly be transcendent. I’ve had good and bad managers over the years, but few….very few great leaders.


    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      I really like this, Joe: “Leaders should inspire, not cause fear. They should raise one up, not pull one down.” And I admire that you stood up to the SES!

  4. The answer to the question is entirely dependent on the priorities of the leader. Is your duty to the dollar, the board, and the share holders and nothing else? If so then this method is effective.

    Do you have a duty to try your best to make sure that your employees know they are valued and enjoy their work? If so then obviously this type of leadership does not work.

    In any case. The tech world has decided which type they prefer. A peek into silicon valley might suggest that Jobs inspired a counter culture where employees are seen as the greatest asset instead of the CEO. “Workplace culture” has become a big topic and everyone seems to want to work at a place like google.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Zack: That’s an interesting perspective, and I can see what you’re saying. The movie made it sound like Jobs was more interested in making a big splash with the press than anything else, at least in that moment. He showed a softer side whenever he talked about some of the design elements on the various computers/products–with them he seemed to be interested in consumer happiness.

  5. Sean says:

    Here is a good article about Jobs and his “Reality Distortion Field”
    From the sound of it, and never having interacting with him, I’d have to say it was something in his personality.

    Also something of note, when speaking of if jobs was someone to aspire to, is this story.
    Jobs screwed over his best friend, took credit for most of the work, and took the bonus. This was pre Wozniak making the computer even. Maybe it’s just me, but I think you can motivate people without treating them in such a horrible way.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Thanks for sharing these articles, Sean. I’m in the middle of the first one right now (it’s long!), and it’s excellent.

      There’s a great moment in the movie when Wozniak points out to Jobs that kindness and leadership aren’t mutually exclusive.

  6. Gin says:

    Jobs’ stories fascinates me. On one hand he is everything a leader is not supposed to be. On the other hand, he shaped the world we live in today (iPhones). I am marveled at the showcase of vision casting in this 1995 interview:

    Another thing that intrigues me so is that, if Jobs was such a horrible person, why do we hear stories of people who were loyal to him? For example, Tim Cook offered his kidney to Jobs, who vehemently refused it.

    So was he a good guy or a bad guy? I don’t think we can simply state that he was one or the other. It’s more complex than that. So is life. Oh well…

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Gin: That’s a great point. Most people aren’t pure good or pure evil–they’re somewhere in between.

      I once knew someone who was truly inspirational. People would hang on his every word. He could make anyone feel special and important, and as a result, the organization was incredibly successful.

      But he was a terrible manager. He micromanaged, he wouldn’t take responsibility, he was hypocritical, he was consistently late, he would completely undermine discussions to fit his agenda, he would have huge emotional mood swings that he’d take out on employees…the list goes on.

      Yet people loved him. They really did. They loved him as a person, and they saw his impact on the organization, so they worked for him for many years. He’s considered a great success.

      But I think the truth is that his employees stuck with him DESPITE his managerial skills, not because of them.

  7. Is it really a dilemma? Not if you’re a decent person, which clearly he was not. However, we live in an age where psychopathic behaviour is rewarded. We celebrate the rich and equate (their) wealth to success.
    That people stuck with him suggests to me an unhealthy co-dependent sort of relationship. That a relationship endures does not automatically mean it is sound or beneficial to both parties.

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