Steve Jobs: Genius was the easy part

Aug 29, 2011

Like many people, I have a huge admiration for Steve Jobs leadership skills and for what he has created, not just with Apple, but also with Pixar and NeXt. There have been countless tributes in the last week to Jobs’ genius – in design, in understanding business models, in transforming industries, and not least, in turning Apple around from a state of near-bankruptcy after he returned from an 11-year exile in 1996.

But I don’t think genius is the most impressive part of what Steve Jobs has achieved – primarily because it’s clearly a latent talent he has. What has been much more impressive is something that I believe Jobs learned painfully, privately, behind the scenes – and the true value of which will only become clear in the next few years.

In my upcoming book “The Synergist: Leading Your Team to Predictable Success“, I explain that there are three types of people in every organization – the Visionary, the Operator and the Processor.

Here’s Jobs’s insight: While everyone instinctively realizes that an enterprise of any size must have many, many Operators and Processors dotted around the organization, most businesses have a single individual – usually the CEO – who is the personification of the Visionary element. So when that person goes, so does the organization’s vision. Apple suffered from this the first time Jobs left – as did Starbucks when Howard Schultz first left, Gateway with Ted Waitt and Dell with Michael Dell.

Jobs and all these other leaders eventually returned to the CEO role to restore their business’s glory. The difference is that only Jobs saw the need to protect against a recurrence, and took steps to institutionalize the Visionary element throughout the organization. Despite the perception of Jobs as Apple’s unmatched Visionary – gained primarily by his commanding presence at every product launch – it’s clear that he has in fact put in place a team filled with Visionaries – albeit (and correctly) Processor / Visionaries like Tim Cook, the new CEO.

This recognition – that the role of Visionary must move from ‘personified’ to ‘institutional’ when a founder leaves, if the organization is to survive and thrive – is a hard one for Visionary founders to see. And because so much of a founder’s ego is tied up in being the ‘most Visionary person in the room’ it’s even harder for them to implement.

But Jobs – unlike Schultz, for example – did it. And that’s what history will show to be truly his greatest achievement.