Steve Jobs and The Bobby Knight School of Leadership

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. Jobs would make decisive decisions on large and small issues and again and again would be proved right by the market or technology. With that ability to make the right decision came respect and a tolerance for his negativity. Knight not only had an amazing knowledge of the game, but he also had insight into competitors and an ability to tailor the efforts of players and a team to get them in a position to win. The knowledge for both in part came from discipline and hard work. Each was obsessive about their jobs and put in astonishingly long hours. But the insight also came from a talent that simply could not be taught.
  1. Both were perfectionists and micromanagers. They did not stop at strategy but got into tactics at a very micro level. Jobs was famous for getting involved in details for all aspects of a product including design, packaging, and advertising. He wanted perfection and expected everyone else to have the same aspiration. Knight was the same way as he would teach fundamentals, blocking out, passing, and defending and expected each player to know the right way and to execute. There was no room for anything less than ongoing perfection in Knight's world.
  1. Both were winners. They hated to lose and could virtually gain victory just by the force of their wills. Winning was crucial to their success over time. People like to be associated with winners and to be on a winning team. The people under both Jobs and Knight in general felt that that these two leaders pushed them to achieve above their natural limits and that result was exhilarating and worth the pain.
  1. They had a higher purpose than just winning. Jobs wanted to generate insanely great products and use them as a vehicle to change the world. Knight wanted to go beyond winning to produce players and teams that reached or exceeded their potential. Many of his players, few of whom were NBA-level gifted, said that the coach got them to perform beyond their personal limitations. His purpose extended to the classroom where also demanded discipline. Nearly all of his players graduated, a rare achievement when it comes to elite college sports teams. Winning a championship was not enough for Knight.

This analysis reminds us that there are many routes to CEO success; there is no one style that is the best. In particular, it highlights the truism that it is not necessary to be well-liked or even supportive and encouraging. The Bobby Knight style worked for Knight and for Jobs. Could Jobs or Knight have been as successful or even more so by being a bit more sensitive and less emotional and negative? Or would an effort to temper their style taken the edge off and undercut their performance? We don't know the answer. It is not clear that style adjusting, which is the goal of many training programs and performance reviews, will result in improved executive performance.

This post originally appeared on Harvard Business Review's blog. For more of my HBR blog posts, click here.

Posted April 25, 2012 / Permalink / Subscribe (e-mail) / Subscribe (RSS)
Tags: apple bobby knight brand brand leadership leadership steve jobs

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