You’re not Michael Jordan…nor Steve Jobs

November 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

I will never forget the moment in my athletic career where it became painfully obvious that I was not going to be as good as Michael Jordan.  I was at the Sixers basketball camp in up-state Pennsylvania and the team’s shooting instructor was giving a talk.  He started by explaining a dunk he witnessed live where Jordan got so high, his leg literally wrapped around another player’s shoulder.  A 6 foot 5 inch player.  His punch line, you will never, ever be able to do that…so if you want to play in high school (or maybe college), work on your jump shot, not your acrobatic lay-ups.  Ugh…that hit me like a ton of bricks.  It was at that point that I realized he was probably right.  I became immediately self-aware that I was a short, slight-built Jewish kid from the suburbs who had trouble touching the net.  [I also realized my jump shot was not good, but that is besides the point.]

Last week a friend forwarded me the New Yorker article on Steve Jobs.  I have read many articles on Jobs.  The one consistent theme that stands out to me  in all of the articles is how he was able to be so successful while being such an ass hole.  Now, I am not kicking another man’s gravestone.  I am sure Steve had been called much worse when he was alive.  I am sure he knew that people didn’t like him.  But every time I read something about his management style, I am left wondering how he was able to attract and retain such talented people.  And build such great products and companies with that tyrannical style.  I guess he was just so damn talented.  But while his success is to be admired, his management style is not something to be copied.

There are a few examples of ass hole leaders that are still able to build great companies.  By all accounts, Bill Gates fits this description.  Jeff Bezos seems to be a real jerk too.  One disclaimer, that I have never met any of these leaders, nor worked in their companies, so I am just going by the numerous, and consistent, accounts that I have read.  But these guys are extremely rare.  And do not demonstrate leadership styles that an entrepreneur should pattern themselves off of.

In my opinion, great leaders are great listeners.  They set a great vision and then empower teams by creating a sense of ownership throughout, rather than subservience to the all-powerful ruler.  My experience is that a team of talented people always beats one great mind.  And the best way to build a great team of talented people is to foster open, candid communication where the best idea wins, regardless of who came up with it.  I certainly have a strong opinion on subject matters.  And I will always challenge the subject matter experts on my team when I disagree with them.  But I try to always leave those debates with them feeling empowered rather than beaten into implementing my wish.  I want my team members to feel a sense of ownership over their domain.  I try very hard to never make them feel like they are simply implementing my will, even though my voice is clear throughout the product.  I am not perfect.  I make mistakes.  And sometimes it is what it is. Sometimes you just have a disagreement and someone has to make a call and that someone is the CEO.  But in general, I try to stay away from my team leaders and let them run their unit.

I find this is a good style because it scales.  It scales for several reasons.  A few are:

  1. Truly talented people thrive in that environment.  Your “B” players fail quickly, and then it becomes obvious that you need to make a move.
  2. It builds trust, accountability and ownership that permeates the organization.
  3. It stretches people to find out how good they are, and thus pushes them to work harder or stretch further.

I learned this style from one of the best.  I was lucky enough to work for several great leaders in my short career.  But one in particular stands out as a world-class operator.  His greatest skill is that he is an amazing people manager.  Elite talents like to work with/for him because of how empowering he is.  And so, no matter what business he starts, he always has an amazing Rolodex of talented people who want to be a part of whatever he thinks is important.  He manages those relationships carefully.  He is extremely responsive in emails, always replying the same day.  He is available for phone calls.  He always listens and always has good recommendations.  He is supportive and empowering.  You always know his vision and his parameters, but you feel empowered to take ownership within those requirements.  That is a skill that is attainable for any entrepreneur/business leader.  Bill Gate’s brilliance is not.  Nor is Steve Job’s design sense.  Those skills are comparable to Jordan’s vertical leap.  But this leader’s empowering style is attainable from any manager willing to work hard at it….just like a good jump shot.

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§ 2 Responses to You’re not Michael Jordan…nor Steve Jobs

  • […] my recent post “You’re not Michael Jordan…Nor Steve Jobs” I made my feelings clear about the value of listening.  I believe that listening is a […]

  • […] Don’t take it from me, go read Lean Startup.  In it, Eric Ries explains the best culture for innovation.  Great companies build a culture of testing, rather than arguing.  In this culture, everything is a hypothesis regardless of who authors it.  Every hypothesis has a key metric that is set (along with the baseline) before the test.  Tests are set up to be run as quickly and as labor light as possible.  Test are pushed as frequently as possible.  The results of the test determine the answer, NOT a person’s ability to out argue (or rather out shout) another person.  Repeat this over and over.  That is what the word “iterate” means.  And in my experience it is the ONLY way to build a product unless you are Steve Jobs, which you are not. […]

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