The Steve Jobs Management Style: Can it be Taught?

In the WSJ article Bio as Bible: Managers Imitate Steve Jobs, reporters Leslie Kwoh and Rachel Emma Silverman discuss how various executives and entrepreneurs are using the Issacson biography Steve Jobs as a “how to” management guide.

Prasad Thammineni, the chief executive of a file-sharing start-up called OfficeDrop in Cambridge, Mass., was no fan of Steve Jobs after Apple Inc. AAPL -1.69% took a long time adding one of the company’s apps to its iTunes Store.

But as he read the hefty biography “Steve Jobs,” the 42-year-old Mr. Thammineni found himself buying into many of the Apple co-founder’s management ideas. He even emailed screenshots of some of the book’s passages to his 20 employees with such messages as “We should all work to achieve this” and “Amazing! Applicable to any start-up.”

Sadly, many choose to parrot behavior and/or signaling (black turtlenecks anyone)?

Kurt Ling, 48, the CEO and co-founder of Pure LatexBliss, a Georgia-based mattress manufacturer, is such a fan he has adopted Mr. Jobs’s signature turtlenecks.

Our take is similar to that of Ben Bleikamp, who feels that many managers are trying to simply imitate selected behaviors of Jobs without understanding the bigger picture. Also it’s clear that Steve Jobs had rare native inner talents and drive that can’t be effectively emulated.

As we learned years ago from a Harvard study of great managers, it’s not that one style (say micromanager vs delegator) dominates in successful management — it’s knowing when to use each of those approaches appropriately that matters.

One entrepreneur we know who worked with Jobs noted his strategic inconsistency. Steve is widely known for emitting a “reality distortion field”, yet much of the time he could be the most realistic communicator in the room — especially when a crisis hit. Sugar-coating and/or diverting the topic away from reality was the opposite of what he did most of the time. Woe be to that manager who thinks cheerleading and selling the team on perpetually rosy prospects is the Jobs way.

Can we learn from Steve Jobs methods? No doubt this is true, but his approach has to be understood from more than a tactical view. A philosophical and strategic, understanding is key. This understanding has to be selectively integrated into our existing operations and realistic management capabilities.

Jesse Glover was Bruce Lee’s first student and spent years with him as a pupil. Glover now teaches others. The first thing he tells newcomers is that there was only one Bruce Lee — and that no one can become a replica. Like Jobs and Michael Jordan, Lee was a perfect physical/mental specimen who had a singular obsession to hone his skill. It’s for all practical purposes impossible for any individual to match any of those people in their chosen avocation.

Glover does not ask students to try and parrot what Bruce did. Instead, he gets to know each students abilities and tailors his evolved version of what he learned from working with Bruce. Each student generally sees a huge enhancement of their abilities — but it’s not done by imitation.