From Steve Jobs to Alan Sugar and Michelle Mone – are today’s leadership role models really good for business? Matt Chittock investigates
Here’s a quick thought experiment for you. Could you imagine attending a management training course without hearing an inspirational quote attributed to Steve Jobs – or a case study explaining the success of Apple?
Jobs has latterly joined the canon of management role models who can always be relied on for a zingy quote or an exciting story to enliven a dull training day.
Just his name brings something to a session that can be all too rare in the business world: a bit of star power. After all, the select band of role models which he leads are more like celebrities than CEOs.
They’re regulars on TV (like Alan Sugar and Donald Trump) and the basis of big budget Hollywood movies (like Mark Zuckerberg or Jobs). For trainers, they’re shorthand for creativity, persistence and innovation.
But while that’s all well and good – can they really teach us anything useful about modern management?
It’s natural that managers want to bring the kind of magic to their companies that Jobs brought to Apple. But, in reality, following his management practices would probably win you a P45 rather than plaudits.
Walter Isaacson’s excellent autobiography reveals how Jobs could behave like an overgrown toddler in the office, often bursting into tears if he couldn’t get his own way.
Meanwhile, he fired employees at will and shouted down anyone he believed couldn’t reach the standards he demanded. Even Jonathan Ive, his beloved design chief, said that for Jobs “the normal rules of social engagement don’t apply”.
Roger Delves, director of the Masters and Management course at Ashridge Business School, says that this trademark larger-than-life presence highlights the problems surrounding these new role models.
Larger than life leaders
“All of these people are larger than life leaders,” he says. “They’re highly ambitious and driven people. And while they might be inspirational they inspire people in order to have them meet their goals and objectives.
“Now actually, that’s quite an uncomfortable way to be led. Because although you are being regularly inspired, you’re not having a sense that you are cared for or nurtured. Basically, you are part of an unstoppable force being driven from behind and pulled from in front by this uber-personality.”
According to Delves, in the day-to-day business world staff don’t like to be led by these kind of leaders. They want managers who are much more ‘other-regarding’ and will happily listen to what you did with your family over the weekend rather than yelling at you for not spending all Sunday working.
Another problem with the cult of management role models is that these alpha personalities are already working from a position of absolute power.
So when Richard Branson announces that we should ‘Screw Business as Usual’ (the title of his best-selling management tome) he has the authority that comes from millions of pounds in the bank and years of experience behind him.
If you announced something like that in your Monday morning catch-up meeting the chances are that staff might not be as appreciative as those at Virgin.
“With these role models, immediately you’re narrowing your frame of reference to very, very senior people,” says Delves. “When you’re talking about these people what they say is always being backed up by huge amounts of authority and power. So, the lessons of leadership that can be drawn from them are extremely limited.”
The reality of contemporary management is also much more complex than a simple top-down trickle of information, persuasion and responsibility. Delves says that most of the leadership that people get involved with at work is much more democratic – and anything but linear.
For instance, staff might be managers in one context and team members in another, depending on their role and where they sit in the organisation.
So what can we do to counter high profile leaders’ illusionary (though seductive) view of management?
Delves suggests building profiles of potential role models based on authentic leadership showcasing leaders that act with integrity.
Leaders among us
Kathryn Nawrockyi, director of Opportunity Now – the campaign for gender diversity from Business in the Community – says that we should also try to take our eyes off the top when looking for models of leadership.
“I think that we can be inspired by other people in the office – rather than just those that sit at the top – and learn from what they do,” she says. “We need to learn to take small nuggets of inspiration from all kinds of leaders.”
Therein lies the rub. Steve Jobs might have been a problematic manager – but he gives far better inspirational quotes than Jane in accounts.
So maybe it’s not about rejecting charismatic leaders altogether. Perhaps we should seek the likes of Jobs for the kind of everyday inspiration that slots well into a Power Point slide.
But then, once inspired, we should look to our experienced colleagues to work out what comes next.