- Leandro Herrero - https://leandroherrero.com -

Iconic leadership: the illusion of copying a one off

Whilst the holidays roll on, here is a leadership theme to consider

Picture this organization.  Closed culture, culture of secrecy, dictatorial CEO. Perhaps a bit unkind, but I have said before, speaking to a large audience of technology executives (and pushing my luck) , that the Soviet Union was never fully dissolved since it reincarnated itself in Cupertino, California, with an apple as a logo. Would you like to work in a secretive culture under a dictatorial CEO? Well, the dictator has left us with an enormous legacy, and the company is today the biggest in the world as measured by market capitalization.

How do you fit the Apple case in the organizational and management world? A model of management? Of organizational culture? Which bits do you want to copy? The market capitalization? The culture? The dictator? Their world leadership in innovation? The Secrecy? The personality cult? All of the above?

The trouble with iconic leadership is that it is not usually transferable. There was only one Steve Jobs, and one set of circumstances around him. You can try to wear black polo neck shirts and jeans but that will not make you his clone.

Banking on those one off, heroic leaders to come to your rescue is not a good idea either. As somebody said: ‘If you don’t have a Steve Jobs, have a plan B’.

Interestingly, any simple digging into the circumstances around the one-off, hero-leader, often offers some more complex findings. For example, the frequent uncovering of the ‘second’ in command. A person sometimes equally important who did not attract the same public treatment. In the case of Steve Jobs, this person was Steve Wozniak.

As put in the 99U.com blog (The Narrative Fallacy: Why You Shouldn’t Copy Steve Jobs), ‘Steve Wozniak created Apple. Steve Jobs was a paper pusher and marketing guy. He never created and designed anything. Without “The Woz” it’s likely that Mr. Jobs would have simply been the most annoying waiter in California’.

And as a commentator put it: ‘And if “The Woz” didn’t have Steve Jobs he would have been a really bright, life-long employee of HP that only people within HP would have heard of.’

But, even if non-transferable, iconic models are useful as a source of inspiration (or the opposite). This is inevitable. Before Jobs we had Jack Welch at the helm of GE. He was treated as a saint in management thinking. I personally disliked his ‘contingency leadership’ style, switching ways of treating people ‘depending on what was needed’. We have of course the ubiquitous Richard Branson, who discovered the Elastic Brand. These figures command a whole industry of books, business cases, and their own ‘place’  in business school programmes (example, quotes, benchmarks). At the time of Welch in GE, it was impossible to attend a conference, leadership seminar or business school presentation without numerous references to him.

Iconic, one-off, perhaps larger than life leaders and their organizations, are a good place to visit, check-in, see the panorama, and return home in the same day. Dwelling there has little benefit. The real world is somewhere else. Get your souvenirs, write your postcards, post your pictures, take it all in and then get on with shaping your own life.