Design vs. Leadership: The Curious Case of Steve Jobs



One of my favorite reads of the last week was this description of working with Steve Jobs. The conclusion hit me with a big “Of course.”

“That is what I remember most about Steve, that he simply loved designing and shipping products. Again, and again, and again. None of the magic that has become Apple would have ever happened if he were simply a CEO. Steve’s magic recipe was that he was a product designer at his core, who was smart enough to know that the best way to design products was to have the magic wand of CEO in one of your hands. He was compelling and powerful and all that, but I think that having once had the reigns of power wrestled away from him, he realized that it was important not to let that happen again, lest he not be allowed to be a Product Manager any more.”

I worked through several hundred pages of Walter Isaacson psychobabble about the source of his impatience and poor treatment of others, and the answer is so much simpler than rage at being adopted or whatnot. Jobs was a designer who became CEO out of necessity and never figured out how to reconcile the tension between them (and maybe never cared to).

Designing and leading are very different modes of action. I say this both from my observations of people who are good at each and from my personal experiences.

Designing benefits from having the shortest distance possible between emotion and action. A good brainstorming session is five people in a room bubbling with new ideas and suggestions for improving others’. It is exciting and incredibly satisfying, though I also find it often frustrating along the way. You have a sense of what good would feel like, and you ain’t there yet. So that frustration drives you, generating new ideas that might get you to good. Stanford’s d. School emphasizes quantity of ideas and speed, and these both come from being very connected to your emotions.

Leadership benefits from having a long distance between emotion and action. As a leader, your every action impacts the people that get things done, and  acting emotionally means acting without really considering whether you are taking into account each individuals’  needs or the team dynamic as a whole. The best leadership I’ve seen has come from a quiet person listening, distilling a room full of drama to two or three key points, and making the unsolvable solvable.

That doesn’t mean that leadership is unemotional. Far from it. Leadership starts with caring about the goal and the people executing it. It continues with the same kind of excitement and frustration at things going well or badly. But I think that emotion always needs to be checked against your understanding, and that takes time.

It sounds like Jobs led as a designer. From “Inside Apple,” it sounds like this extends not just to designing amazing products but to an amazing company as well (their Monday meetings reviewing every product with all execs are genius). And in leading others, it sounds like he often acted too quickly from his emotion, calling someone a “genius” one second and a “bozo” the next–the same kind of swing between excitement and frustration that drives a designer. But in applying this to people, you come across as erratic, demoralizing, unfair. Good thing that he designed a company with so much opportunity for others to do great work that people were willing to suck it up and deal.

This raises an issue: how do you merge the two together and be a good leader of design? Is it a swing between acting emotionally and acting thoughtfully? Is it about understanding the design process but giving up your role in it so that you can focus on getting the most out of others?

My best assessment: I think it’s probably a bit of both–leadership skills and design skills are both tools that you have to have at the ready based on whatever is needed from the situation. As always, the goal is king. But I’d be curious to hear from any leaders of design out there.


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