Judging from the onslaught of books, articles, and blog posts extolling Steve Jobs' virtues and condemning his vices, the question of whether leaders can replicate Jobs' results by emulating his methods is an important one. Since most managers quantitatively analyze the factors that affect the performance of their firms, we find it surprising that this great debate has raged in a context largely uninformed by any hard data.
To the contrary, numerous commentators have passionately presented their anecdotal perspectives, either revering or reviling Job's take-no-prisoners approach; there is no middle ground. In his recent Wired article, Ben Austen aptly labeled these two camps acolytes and rejecters. Acolytes see Jobs as brilliant, citing his leadership as the reason behind Apple's phenomenal results. Rejecters see him as arrogant and deeply flawed, leading Apple to meteoric success in spite of his often boorish behavior.
We believe that in addition to having a polarizing effect on a broader discourse about leadership, this debate highlights an important shortcoming in how we think about it. Most organizational theorists conceptualize leadership in one of two dichotomous ways. Psychologists focus on interpersonal behavior; how a leader influences others within an organization. Management scholars define leadership in terms of the business prowess required to implement the right strategy and structure to achieve a positive outcome; in other words, what a leader emphasizes. Research suggests both the how and the what are important.
For example, Google conducted a rigorous statistical analysis to empirically determine the characteristics of the most effective managers among its ranks. The company expected to find that technical expertise was the most important attribute for leaders to possess within a world-class technology company. Instead, according to The New York Times, Google's most effective leaders "were even-keeled bosses who made time for one-on-one meetings, helped people puzzle through problems by asking questions, not dictating answers, and who took an interest in employees' lives and careers" — all "how" leadership characteristics.
In contrast, a recent global study by Deloitte Consulting explored how investors determine the value of a firm. The top two factors in order of importance were financial performance and leadership. Investigating how analysts measured the intangible value of leadership, the study found three core components that clearly belong in the "what" category: clarity of the strategy, ability to execute, and a culture of innovation.
In our view, what these two studies and others like them tell us is this: framing the question of whether outstanding leadership involves skillfully building strong interpersonal relationships or a masterful command of strategy, structure and decision making is a false dichotomy; there is nothing fundamentally incompatible in these two perspectives. So unlike most of the impassioned rhetoric imploring leaders "to be or not to be" like Steve Jobs, we believe assertions regarding leadership effectiveness should be assessed empirically.
To this end, in a recently published study we examined data from over 4,600 co-workers of 421 executives and senior managers and the teams they led. Data included ratings of interpersonally focused (how) and organizationally oriented (what) leadership behaviors along with measures of individual leader effectiveness, employee attitudes (engagement, morale, cohesiveness), and team productivity.
Statistical analyses indicated that the how and the what have a similar impact on effectiveness but they are related to it in different ways. The how affects employee attitudes, which, in turn, links to performance. In contrast, the what has no effect on employee attitudes yet directly impacts ratings of team productivity. In other words, the interpersonal how and organizational what represent statistically equivalent yet complementary ways in which managers influence the performance of the firms they lead.
The key implication from these findings is that we need to shift our mindset regarding leadership effectiveness. Rather than considering either leaders' interpersonal influence or their capacity to address substantive organizational issues, we need to reframe the question. A more useful approach is to assess the degree to which leaders are adept at doing both, integrating one of many paradoxes that make their jobs a difficult balancing act.
According to our data, Jobs should be regarded as a statistical outlier and managerial anomaly rather than as a model of leadership worth imitating. In our database of 421 executives and senior leaders, there was not a single example of a "Steve Jobs profile" — a person scoring in the top 10% on the organizational what but below average on the interpersonal how and having a highly productive team. From the available evidence, the best way to be an effective leader is to become a master of opposites — simultaneously developing as a "people leader" and as an innovative, strategic leader with a bias for execution.
What practices do you employ to manage the tensions that arise from concurrently focusing on delivering results and treating people well? How do you ensure that neither the interpersonal nor the organizational aspects of your leadership get short shrift in your development activities?