Steve Jobs – Great Leaders Need Great Followers

Much has been and will be written about Steve Jobs and his leadership of Apple. He was certainly an amazing business man and brand evangelist. He was also obsessive over both form and function in product design.

We have Apple to thank for much of the innovation in personal computing. Steve Jobs has left an amazing legacy. The accolades he has received are richly deserved.

But what about his team? What about the people who chose to be his followers? I want to pay tribute to all the Apple employees who actually delivered the innovative, functional works of art many of us rely on every day.

I don’t know the detail of Apple’s history or of any cultural challenges faced when Steve returned to the fold after his initial departure. If Apple is anything like most organisations I have come across, then there will have been those that agreed and those that disagreed with Steve’s vision and approach.

As well as those that engaged with Steve’s vision, I want to pay tribute to those that chose to get off Steve’s ‘bus’, those followers that didn’t like what they saw at Apple under Steve’s watch and moved on – voluntarily. I don’t know how many people this refers to. It might be a handful, it might be thousands, but there had to be some who didn’t want to follow Steve when he returned to Apple. Those that left of their own volition deserve praise. They freed up the remaining followers to focus on the job in hand.

Those that stayed and engaged in the vision were the great followers that the great leader, Steve Jobs, needed to deliver his strategy. Those that left of their own volition were the great followers that another great leader was surely looking for in order to deliver their strategy.

The disgruntled followers who stayed with Apple, despite disagreeing with the new way, had their reasons, I’m sure, but I have to question whether this was the right thing to do.

Not all leaders are going to be our ‘cup of tea’ and there is no right or wrong when it comes to leadership style. I’ve seen many successful organisations with all types of leaders at the helm. Contrary to what many leadership commentators say, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all leadership identikit.

It is interesting to observe what people do when faced with a leader they don’t like or agree with. It might be they have negative feelings towards the new leader simply because they took over from the previous leader whom they admired and didn’t want to see go.

Some wait to see whether the leader grows on them. When s/he doesn’t, a minority make a choice to find another leader. They leave. These are the great followers an alternative great leader is looking for.

Others stick around. Some moan and grumble, perhaps becoming proactively disruptive, challenging decisions, blocking communications or promoting functional isolation. This type of follower I refer to as the ‘terrorist’. They are disengaged and are proactively disrupting effective implementation of the chosen strategy.

Some don’t grumble. They keep quiet, going about their business as if they are happy with the leader. At first sight this might seem acceptable. After all, they aren’t doing anything deliberately disruptive. However, it’s what they don’t say that is the problem. They aren’t enthusing about the leader’s strengths. They aren’t fully engaging with the dialogue; the positive challenge that is needed to drive innovation and avoid group-think. They aren’t engaged in criticising the leader, for the right reasons, when they inevitably slip up.

Neither are they giving their discretionary effort. By that, I don’t mean extra hours. I have seen many disengaged people work long hours. What I mean by discretionary effort is the extra cognitive and emotional capacity, the creativity, the enthusiasm, the drive, the excitement. I refer to this type of follower as the ‘sleeper’.

There are no neutral acts when it comes to ‘followership’. Being positively engaged or disengaged creates obvious consequences for the organisation culture and implementation of the strategy. So does fence-sitting. It shouts out a message loud and clear.

My experience indicates that those that choose to remain quietly disengaged eventually leave of their own accord. I wonder how much cultural ‘drag’ they may have caused in the meantime?

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