6 Oct 2011

Steve Jobs – maverick with talent for innovation

Steve Jobs’ death has led experts to reflect on how a maverick innovator changed the way we use technology while retaining an alternative, anti-establishment aesthetic.

Hard taskmaster

Mr Job’s charismatic presentations of Apple’s latest products were relished by Apple fans, almost as much as the products themselves. However his laid-back, west coast demeanour was not always in evidence on a day to day basis and among colleagues, Mr Jobs was known as a hard taskmaster.

Robert Sutton, management science professor at Stanford Engineering School and author of best-seller ‘The No Asshole Rule’, told Fortune magazine that he was approached by many of Mr Job’s employees telling stories about their boss: “The degree to which people in Silicon Valley are afraid of Jobs is unbelievable. He made people feel terrible; he made people cry.”

In a blog post, Robert Sutton went on to say his anger focused on two issues: aesthetics and ease of human use.

“He could at times, be very ‘me, me, me’ and be very controlling. But this is part of the reality of leadership,” Chris Nichols, an engagement and innovation specialist at Ashridge Business School, told Channel 4 News.

A lot of companies would have fired Steve Jobs. He had characteristics that make him a very difficult person. Chris Nichols, Ashfield School of Business

Mr Jobs was ousted from Apple in 1985 for 12 years, after a clash with his board. However his passion for design and user-friendly innovation meant that he championed creativity wherever he worked and gave his full support to good ideas.

“That’s why Apple was this fantastic engine of creativity. Other companies squeeze creativity out,” said Mr Nichols.

“A lot of companies would have fired Steve Jobs. He had characteristics that make him a very difficult person. He could be very controlling and was also a maverick. But he started up a company where people would be inspired to change the world.”

Passion for design and technology

It might have resulted in a tough management style, but Mr Jobs was hugely passionate about what he did. When he resigned from the position of Apple CEO in August this year, it was because his illness was compromising his own high expectations.

“I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come,” he said.

Rarely has a billionaire, former chief executive of a multi-million dollar company, managed to hold on to his leftfield credentials. But Steve Jobs was an exception.

A vegetarian Buddhist who is thought to have dated folk singer Joan Baez in his youth, he nonetheless had a talent and interest in commercial business, becoming a millionaire by his late twenties and steering his company to becoming the most valuable in the world this year.

Not only was he perceived as a bit of a radical – albeit a very successful one – but Mr Jobs was also synonymous with the products his company created. He oversaw the creation and design of the Mac, iPod and later the iPhone and iPad which were seen as niche and edgy in comparison with their competitors, despite their increasingly mainstream consumer base.

The Apple club

The Apple co-founder was able to balance his company’s contradiction between market-leader and cult status by creating a brand that was more like a club, says Professor Donna Ladkin, leadership specialist at Cranfield University School of Management.

He touched something in the zeitgeist about wanting to be slightly different – even if it was a lot of people. Donna Ladkin, Cranfield School of Management

“People wanted to be part of the Apple club. He touched something in the zeitgeist about wanting to be slightly different – even if it was a lot of people,” she told Channel 4 News. “It was about being on the edge and slightly radical.”

Whether it was conscious or not, Mr Jobs did this so convincingly because he embodied his company’s anti-establishment ethos. His black turtlenecks, jeans and trainers cut a stark contrast to the men in suits and inspired devotion among technological geeks and style gurus alike.

“One of the reasons he was so successful is because there was such a coherence between the way he was and what the company was about; between his message, which was all about aesthetics – or the value of ‘look’ and ‘feel’ – and being on the edge, and the way that he was personally,” said Professor Ladkin.

Read more: Steve Jobs in his own words