Steve Jobs’ Legacy: Leading as Love?

Many admire Steve Jobs’ business achievements including orchestrating one of the most successful business turnarounds.  At the same time, we have come to know him as a “leader” who could be considered a “poster child” for egotistical, manipulative, abusive, self-serving behavior.  So why would I even suggest that part of his legacy might be Leading as Love?

After his death, I became fascinated by a man who apparently broke all the rules of what I believe characterize effective leaders.  Based on Walter Isaacson’s biography and HBR article and other articles published since Jobs’ death, I would like to look at Steve Jobs through the lens of Leading as Love, to offer a reframe for what we observed about his life.  In doing so, perhaps I am creating one of his “reality distortion fields.”  As a “disclaimer”:  I had no desire for and never owned an Apple product.

So, our starting point is my beliefs about leadership.  Leading as Love is about relationship, our connection and interdependence as human beings.  This is characterized by care, understanding and respect and being consciously responsive to ensure the well-being of oneself AND others.  It is living without expectations or judgment.  It is about tolerance and acceptance with focus on reaching our full potential.  It is an attitude and approach (philosophy) for how we live our lives.  This view of love can be considered a deep value, a virtue that permeates our entire life.

There is nothing “soft” about this love; it’s a steadfast commitment to honesty and truth with a willingness to be humble and vulnerable that requires great courage and strength.  It is human being-to-human being intimacy and authenticity that generates a power that comes forth when we drop all the masks, pretenses and conditioning and we are fully present.  This is the source of “influence”, not to have others subscribe to something outside of themselves, but to step into personal power and mastery to be oneself.  This is true leadership and is not limited to position or role.

From this, leaders can be described as those who influence, inspire and enable others to be fully who they are, to reach their full potential.  In this way, the organization reaches its potential, and achieves extraordinary results.  At its simplest, Leading as Love is holding people accountable, including ourselves, for acting for the common good of humanity, our growth and evolution, and the world we live in.  In short, true leaders serve humanity, show people their possibilities and potential and enable fulfillment.

There is much we can learn about leading from Steve Jobs.  Let’s not stay just at the surface and focus on his behaviors. To derive wisdom, as he would, we need to go deep, beyond the surface complexity, to understand more fully his simple intent.  Here is my perspective, an interpretation of his behavior based as much on an intuitive sense as logic.

I think we can all agree that Steve Jobs was the “first one in”, out in front and rebelled against the status quo. I will go further and say he was both a leader (people: possibility and potential) AND a manager (work:  reliability, predictability and certainty (control)).  I would like to suggest that Steve Jobs embodied the polar extremes: The emerging paradigm of Leading as Love, living from the heart rather than the logical mind, not tolerating others’ self-imposed limitations, serving humanity as well as the “old” paradigm of leader-as-manager of ego-driven, arrogant “command and control”, who profits at the expense of others.  As one person in his biography put it, “He was an enlightened being who was (also) cruel.”

His gift to us was that he epitomized both management and leadership at the extremes so that we could see them side-by-side.  He lived a paradox, an apparent caricature of both: command, control and fear versus love; an out-of-control ego versus the meditative focus of a Zen monk.  He did not attempt to resolve or soften these extremes rather he accepted them as a part of who he was, living free from the judgments and perceptions of “not good.”  One thing is certain: His behaviors clearly reflected his internal belief structures.  He wore no mask.  He revealed both the brilliance of leadership and the darkest side of management.

As a human being, we also contain these dual experiences and perspectives. Organizations require both the art of leadership (people, possibility) and the science of management (work, certainty).  It is personal and organizational mastery when these are in conscious balance and integration.  It is interesting to note that this is a hallmark of Apple’s products:  the intersection of art (humanities) and technology that broke the limits of what was believed possible.

In his eulogy, his sister said that love was his “highest virtue.”  I can see a man with a deep love for humanity’s ability to create; an unwavering focus on our primal need to create and to realize our potential.  He built Apple with an intuitive sense for our innate needs and drive for purpose and meaning, connection and contribution, and growth and mastery.  He believed in establishing common ground in the form of creating amazing products and from this, financial success would follow.  He loved people by wanting them to excel (both individually and collectively) and he loved the work of creation and innovation.  He saw profitability as an outcome and an enabler of innovation but not the reason for being, not the purpose of business.  For Steve Jobs, significance, making a positive difference was far more important than success, material accumulation.

I see a man who deeply cared about, understood human nature (the false limitations we put on ourselves, the “we can’t”), and respected the inherent potential and greatness that we all possess. In his perfectionism, he would settle for nothing less from himself and others.  In this way he brought forth “amazing” results.  He believed that others were capable of doing the “impossible” and so demanded it, a very “tough love.”  His motivation was to build an enduring company that makes great products.

He clearly acted in ways that our social conditioning would deem inappropriate or unacceptable in relationships.  It is interesting to note that when he berated people and engaged in screaming matches that were extremely personal at times, it was about the “what”, the ultimate vision they were working on, not about the “how”, the process they were using.  He respected people’s innate talents and wanted to maximize their strengths and left them to figure it out how it got done.  He did everything he could to foster collaboration and face-to-face engagement because he believed that personal interactions were the source of creativity and innovation.  Creation and innovation happen at the edges, from pushing the limits of what is believed possible; admittedly he did not always do this in a kind or respectful way.

I could see his anger arise when people did not break free of their self-imposed limitations or constraints imposed by what others believed possible.  He created the context for possibilities and potential for full expression and fulfillment and became angry when others resisted or rejected this invitation.  He knew their greatness.  He showed anger because he cared.  Think about it.  We get angry because we care deeply about someone or something and we are not in control of their choices and the outcome.  I venture to guess that people experienced both Jobs’ underlying intent for their greatness along with his overt behavior described as “brutal.”  He “read” people well and knew what each person needed to excel so perhaps the anger came from a deep place of love.  Feeling this from him beneath the behavior may be a contributing factor why people didn’t leave.  In other words, perhaps he “got away with” the apparent abusive behavior because it came from a place of love.

Finally, I can see that his “showmanship” and taking center-stage was perhaps not so much about him but rather a celebration of the collective achievement.

The clues for these interpretations are found in the essence of his Stanford University commencement address in 2005.  Both directly and indirectly he told the graduates to have courage: to live from the heart and intuition (not from the dictates or expectations of others); to be curious and allow life to unfold (you can only connect the dots later); and to not limit oneself or take things personally to protect the ego (fear of embarrassment or failure).  This advice can only come from a place of love and trust: of self, of others and of life.

It’s rather easy to judge others based on behavior (we don’t always know intent) and I am not in any way condoning or excusing his behavior.  I agree he deeply bruised many egos and there are far more respectful ways to relate to others.  As a leader and coach, while my style and approach is vastly different, I won’t pander to another’s ego so they can feel good, especially if I see they are holding back, diminishing who they truly are or otherwise blocking the realization of their potential.

We could legitimately say that he “failed” at Emotional Intelligence and at elements of every leadership competency model that I am familiar with.  I wonder if some of these models, in their complexity and by describing visible behavior, serve to hide what is going on at a deeper level (virtues, values, beliefs, etc.).  In other words, for Jobs, what was unacceptable to others around his behavior was entirely consistent with his belief structure to live outside the status quo, the dogmas imposed by others.  I would also argue that our competency models, which generally define “appropriate” behavior as “rules” for what makes an effective leader, are ironically attempts to manage our leaders.

He respected those who endeavored to master their potential and had no tolerance for those who did not.  Many people who worked directly with him and across Apple were/are intensely committed to him, the company and their products.  He wanted everyone and everything to be the “best” they could possibly be. Others trusted him as he trusted them (at least in the later years).  He held everyone, including himself, accountable for the common good.  He was about expanding the capacity of the human experience through connection and creation.

Admittedly, this view is not a mainstream perspective.  My belief is that we cannot build any kind of social structure that generates sustained effectiveness or success without Leading as Love.  Again, there is nothing soft about it.  It requires discipline, truth-telling and humility, the absence of ego.  At the same time, we judge and largely set standards for behavior based on what will preserve and protect our ego, our self-identity, our beliefs about ourselves.  He showed us the shadow of how we manage, what we generally deny that is in ourselves.  Meaning, how many times do we feel anger and want to yell and scream as he did?  Be honest.  In addition, we can’t have it both ways: truly lead and protect our belief that managing IS leading.  We can’t lead as love from a traditional management mindset.

Steve Jobs was far from perfect. He revealed two different ways of being in the world.  By showing us the extremes of our own choices and behaviors he gives us a starting point to integrate leading and managing.  Organizations and society need both and they are distinct.  When we start from Leading as Love, we can refine our management practices so they are no longer about fear-based control.  Managing then becomes a further expression of love, of care, understanding and respect.

He showed the power of living outside of the limitations of our logical, linear thinking and social conditioning.  So we can say he was unreasonable in his demands, they were not based in reason, logic.  They were based in what his heart and intuition knew were possible.  While I am not sure he demonstrated self-mastery, in some ways he mastered conscious intent.  As a leader, he worked to free our inherent creativity and left the world a better place, enabling us to create and innovate and connect with each other and our life experience in “amazing” ways.  Thank you Steve Jobs, while I don’t think you led with a conscious intention to love, I learned much from you.

Will we make more conscious choices for how we show up:  When are we leaders?  When are we managers?  How do we integrate the two to generate our social structures: business, government, education and religion so that all thrive?  What do you think?

Leading as Love®  Lucira Jane Nebelung Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved.

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