I wrote a few days ago that Steve Jobs broke every leadership rule,” pointing out that the Apple chief executive was famous for being brutal and unforgiving and a micromanager.
I added that I thought he could get away with that—and even had to be that way—because he was a brilliant innovator with a singular vision that he was right to fiercely insist on. This provoked a very lively reader response.
The great majority of the commenters agreed with me and defended Jobs.
Some, like "gslusher" argued that there are no rules of leadership: "Every effective leader has her/his own style. Some are tyrannical, some are soft and fuzzy. . . . Different situations demand different styles."
Others came out for ruthlessness across the board, like "lazyposter", who wrote, "A corporation or a business is NOT and CANNOT be a democracy. A CEO or an owner is indeed and necessarily [must] be a dictator. Is there a business that sets corporate policies, strategies and tactics by majority vote? Any?"
Well, maybe not, but here’s the closest thing: The New York Times just ran an interview with Andy Lansing, the president and CEO of Levy Restaurants, in which he said, "What gives you power is how you treat people", and "Leaders . . . have the knowledge about how to treat people with respect and dignity." He said that when he hires, at any level, "my first question to you is going to be, are you nice?," because “You will not have success at this company long term if you’re not nice."
So here’s a CEO who believes that being pleasant and agreeable is central to leadership, even as most people observing the career of Steve Jobs seem to think that not being nice has been central to his leadership. What gives?
Commenter "bcrisler" on my post suggests that Steve Jobs was indeed nice, but to us, the consumer, rather than to his employees: "What people don’t get about Steve Jobs is that he wasn’t trying to run a spa for his employees. He was trying to take care of his end users. . . . Apple under Jobs delivered what most other companies give lip service to: a passionate, almost fanatical dedication to customer satisfaction."
“jrobert” adds that Jobs’ employees appreciated this:"Clear direction from a visionary genius CEO . . . highest expectations of one’s creative talent . . . this is Heaven to people who are proud of their own abilities and are exhilarated by pushing themselves to the utmost to reach success."
Then how can Andy Lansing succeed while being Mr. Nice Guy? I’d say it has a lot to do with the business he is in. He runs a chain of restaurants. The success of most restaurants relies on warm personal interaction at the retail level, and it makes sense for that spirit to permeate the business.
Steve Jobs surely understands that. His retail business, the Apple Store chain, is renowned for its agreeable as well as expert employees, and they’re not so agreeable just by chance.
So maybe whether CEOs should be nice depends on both their individual character and the kind of company they are running—which of course should be fully aligned in any case.