Two mushers of the Yukon Quest on the Yukon River

Was Steve Jobs a Musher?

Published On: February 7, 2023By Categories: Musher Management, Vision

Dear Reader — I had originally intended to blog about Steve Jobs’s resignation as Apple’s CEO, only to let time lapse, and now Jobs has passed away. I am saddened that someone who has had such a big impact on my life, even without my knowing him, is gone.

A colleague turned me on to an article about Jobs wherein the author praised Jobs for his zero tolerance for obstructions. Jobs envisioned certain futures for the industry, certain ambitions for Apple, certain functionality for Apple’s hardware and software, which were crystal clear to him. His persistence in making manifest his vision certainly leads one to believe he was a Musher — the firm presence at the rear of the sled which lends courage and conviction to the team as it pulls the sled. But other qualities in Jobs call into question if he was a true Musher.

The trend in the first twenty-four hours after Jobs’ death was to nearly cannonize him for this obsession and persistence — basically for his outcomes.

However, within just a few days, a few writers attempted to take a more objective view of Jobs’ successes through the lens of his managerial style, in other words, his means. In a recent posting by Ryan Tate on Gawker Tate expounds in some detail on Jobs’ sometimes nefarious “crispness” as a manager — sometimes berating, cajoling, and humiliating managers to achieve results. While I have gone to great lengths in my own career to avoid these behaviors, I do know that they exist outside Apple, and they are most often displayed in entrepreneurial, or cult-of-personality led companies where such behaviors are simply understood and/or tolerated with the explanation that they are “part of the culture.” Interestingly enough, however, I have not found that the behavior to be repeated throughout the company simply because the CEO engages in that behavior.

The object lesson in Jobs’ managerial style may be in the break-down between the vision of the Musher — where we are going, or must go — and the explanation of that need to the team. Jobs did a great job communicating his vision to you and me, through his stage presence and through the products themselves. But we all benefited from an historical perspective and clarity, as if the journey were already completed and the race already won. The Musher on the other hand needs to communicate that same clarity of vision and of the future along the way, as the path is being both traversed and created at the same time. Telling people “they don’t get it” is not managing. Explaining in appropriate detail where you want to go, why you want to go there, and how you intend to go is the surest way to create alignment, and extract high-performance from the team.

Apple is a massive enterprise, many times larger and more complex than anything I’ve ever run, so I am going to heap my praise on the management organization, which worked diligently to operationalize Jobs’ vision. There is no question that Jobs was a visionary, in so many ways; yet, I do not think he was a student of or innovator in matters of management. I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve thought “management” largely gets in the way of great results. Hence, I am going out on a limb to say I do not think he was a true Musher. Brave, bold, charismatic? Yes. Someone who expected the most of himself, and of others? Yes. But not a Musher.

Your take?

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  1. JoAnne Kruse October 12, 2011 at 7:10 am - Reply

    As usual Dave, you are spot on. Would be interesting to know how others in his organization compensated (were any of them mushers instead?) and how the new CEO Tim Cook will manage and lead.

  2. camille Olivere October 16, 2011 at 4:23 pm - Reply

    Dave, It seems there are many very successful people that don’t lead like a musher. Just think of what could have been if he did?!?!?! Perhaps other innovations, partnerships or adjacencies? We’ll never know and regardless, what an amazing achiever he was! I am reading “Breaking all the Rules”. It seems Gallup studies validate much of your musher philosophy.

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