Is a successful business leader necessarily good?

Abstract: No, Steve jobs was not a good leader…

It was over fifteen years ago when I bought my first Apple computer. It was a blue iMac – a thing of surreal beauty. At a time of beige boxes and a jungle of cables, the simple translucent coloured curves that was my computer oozed a combination of sex and sophistication. OK, so maybe that’s a bit overboard, but it does personify the unremitting, innovative leadership that helped create a highly successful company, but not necessarily one that was good.

I was a Mac addict back in the days when it was still a designer fix – the sole reserve of creatives who valued inspiration and innovation over pure operational functionality. My company at that time was creating experimental products that would later leapfrog over a competitor’s more staid offering; and as such I worked closely with my design team who only used Macs. I immediately fell in love with the streamlined intuition that Apple seemed to have built into their hardware and software, and bought myself what would be the first of many Apple devices; and so started a passionate support for the brand, its products and the man behind them.

This was a time before the iPod made Apple the success story it is today. At that time Microsoft dominated the personal computer market, and Apple was still weaving its magic amongst the niche of architects and marketing types. Importantly, Apple presented Microsoft, and Bill Gates in particular, as the evil empire extending its hooked tentacles into our everyday life. Apple saw itself as the cool, funky upstart – the challenger to the title.

And driving Apple was Steve Jobs – a man who would go on to epitomise a successful business leader – inspiring, cajoling and berating his management and staff towards a singular vision – his – sustained through his dominion, and crafted around what his team leaders would jokingly refer to as his “reality distortion field”. Here was a man who famously believed market research wasn’t necessary because he dictated what it was that customers wanted.

His former fellow entrepreneur and early software supplier, and later rival and nemesis Bill Gates behaved differently. From the outset he believed in co-operation between different companies manufacturing components and software that were compatible, as long as they used his operating system.

The battle between them is legendary, as was the final outcome. Once he returned to Apple after being fired, Jobs continued his drive against beige boxes and tangled cables, and gave us smooth lines, simplicity and the iPod; and the company’s fortunes changed as Apple became a desirable brand, the epitome of cool. Eventually, in August this year Jobs’ Apple Inc. became the most valuable company in the United States with a market capitalisation of $623.52 billion. Gates’ Microsoft, on the other hand slipped into the background, a shadow of its former self.

It’s hard to tell the story of Steve Jobs without using superlatives, and it is rare to read or hear about him without words like ‘iconic’, ‘inspirational’, ‘genius’ and ‘visionary’ attached his name – adjectives most leaders dream of earning, words that bordered on idolatry; but there’s one word, it seems, he never deserved: “good”.

It was when I was researching a piece on the funding of so-called ‘neglected diseases’ in sub-Saharan Africa that I stumbled upon the name of the man Steve Jobs had knocked out of the ring: Bill Gates, and learned more of the actions of a business leader who really was doing work that could be called good. The foundation he had formed with his wife Melinda had just pledged $363 million to target neglected tropical diseases. Unbelievable, this came only days after they had announced they would give $750 million to a global fund to fight what were called ‘the big three’ – malaria, TB and HIV.

I was flabbergasted. I was also disappointed when research showed, as I had suspected, that Steve Jobs had done little to help those who would never buy his products.

Whereas Jobs had left a legacy of innovation that had successfully tapped into the wallets of millions of people, revolutionised the computer industry, and created one of the world’s most profitable companies; Bill Gates had quietly established a living endowment of philanthropy, injecting millions of his own money into research into diseases that kill or maim millions of people every year.

So which of these two leaders would you aspire to follow?

Originally published in the October 2012 edition of Leadership magazine