No, We Can’t “Be Like Steve”! Learning From One of the World’s Most Admired Leaders by Kimberly Wiefling

431459_522085357813472_268713462_n(Originally posted on

In my endless pursuit of becoming the kind of leader I admire, and helping others do the same, I review scads of research on what makes leaders admirable. Recently I came across a shocking ad hoc study where people were asked “Who is your most admired leader?” What was so startling was that the most frequent response was . . . wait for it . . . nobody! That’s right, these people couldn’t think of a single person whose leadership had earned their admiration. It gets worse, though. The second most frequent answer was a cartoon or fictional character, such as Harry Potter. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me since my #1 response to this question is Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise, mostly because he has enormous power at his disposal combined with the wisdom to use it with great restraint.

Don’t despair! In my global leadership development programs people do manage to think of some examples of admired leaders who are human beings. Unfortunately most of them are dead – Winston Churchill, Gandhi, JFK, ancient Shogun. Great living leaders, it seems, don’t spring to mind quite so readily. But in October of 2011 one name suddenly was on the lips of nearly every person I asked – Steve Jobs. Hong Kong bankers cited him as their role model for business acumen. Singaporean production managers aspired to his gift of making spellbinding presentations. Japanese R&D engineers lusted after the innovative spark that inspired so many iProducts. And German accountants envied his ability to amass enormous wealth through his combination of boundless creativity and shrewd market savvy.

Wanted: Leaders Who are Inconsiderate, Demanding Perfectionists

Honestly, I was never a big fan of Steve’s leadership style. He always seemed to me to be the perfect example of what is known as a “rock star CEO”, the genius-with-a-thousand-followers kind of leader, who occupied the spotlight as a solo act, leaving little opportunity for his team to develop, contribute, and shine. My most admired leaders are those Jim Collins describes as “Level 5 Leaders”, combining authentic personal humility with intense professional will. While no one would debate that he achieved “Level 5 results”, Steve’s style was Level 4, more of a “Rock Star CEO”.

In fact, I’m always skeptical about the leadership of CEOs if their company’s stock price fluctuates with their health – to me that’s a signal that they haven’t built a strong leadership team. Practically speaking, giant global companies can’t be led by one human being. However I realized that Steve had indeed made a deep impression on me when I, too, shed a tear upon hearing that he had left us behind, stranded here on Planet Earth without his brilliance. I’ve spent the past 5 months ruminating about what kind of leader he was. I’ve frittered away many hours on transoceanic flights wondering why I, and so many other people, admire him even though even close associates have described him as “a demanding perfectionist” and “inconsiderate” – not exactly the kind of person most people clamor to follow.

Read This Book and “Be Like Steve”!

I thought Jay Elliot’s book “The Steve Jobs Way – iLeadership for a New Generation” would satisfy my curiosity. Presumably, by reading it I’d learn “how to be like Steve”. No such luck. However, reading it did help me identify what bothers me most about Steve’s leadership style – it can’t be learned. No one can “be like Steve”. You’re either an enormously talented genius with balls of steel, or you’re not. There’s no path to becoming “like Steve”. As a result, many people are left feeling that there’s no possibility that they could make an important contribution through their own leadership.

Leadership is something that can be learned, but not necessarily from examples like Steve Jobs. My own personal life makes this point. When people ask me how they can become more the kind of leader I am (something I don’t advise, mind you) I tell them all they need to do is grow up in an alcoholic family, be emotionally abused for the first 18 years of their lives, and overcome it through decades of counseling and self-reflection. (Mom/Dad – if you read this don’t take it personally – That’s all in the distant past now, and I’m over it!) This path has worked for me – truly I do attribute my best leadership characteristics to the challenges I faced growing up, but following in my footsteps is probably not practical advice from which others can benefit.

All that being said, there are a few things that I have learned from Steve’s fine example:

  • You don’t have to graduate from a prestigious university to be successful. In fact, you don’t have to graduate at all.
  • You can be an asshole sometimes, as long as you have other talents that make up for it. People will forgive you your annoying quirks if your contributions are great enough.
  • You don’t have to let failure, humiliation, and naysayers stop you from pursuing your dreams. Keep going!

Leadership for the Rest of Us

Leadership needn’t be limited to the gifted few – those who happen to have mega-brains and the intestinal fortitude to pull off miracle after miracle in the face of seemingly (or actually) insurmountable odds. Master chefs don’t need a cookbook, but do the rest of us mere cooks need to feel like lesser human beings just because we need to follow a recipe as we clatter about in the kitchen? I think not. Leadership can – and MUST – be learned. Every day I think about how to help people become more the kind of leaders the world desperately needs and they admire. Some important ingredients in the leadership recipe include:

  • Leaders don’t know everything. (What percentage of all knowledge and wisdom do you personally know? Most people estimate well under 1%. Why would a leader be any different?)
    • Leaders ask for, and accept, help.
    • Leaders make, and admit, mistakes.
    • The best leaders combine great power with great humility.
    • Leaders need followers, and if their followers don’t help lead, the leaders can’t succeed.
  • Leaders inspire people to believe that together they can do what they could never do alone.
  • Leaders help people develop the courage to tackle challenges that seem impossible, and eventually tackle such challenges without the ongoing support of their leader.
    • Leaders create more leaders, and a team that can outlive them.

Planet Earth Needs You!

According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, if we don’t change the path we’re on by the year 2050 Earth’s population will require “2.3 Earths” worth of resources to support us. Has anyone seen an additional 1.3 Earths lying about somewhere? Me neither. To me, this means that we can’t rely on one or two extraordinary beings to solve our problems and lead us to a sustainable future. Just because you can’t be like Steve is no reason to grab a beer, put up your feet, and switch on the TV. We need you! So get busy leading from wherever you are, with whatever gifts you do have, to do what needs to be done – in your project, your family, your community, our world.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.