'L’état: c’est moi' - what will be Steve Jobs' real legacy?


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I’ll leave it to others to pay tribute to Steve Jobs: he is clearly a remarkable individual and visionary.

What is interesting for me is the question of his legacy. Is it the iPhone?, the iPad?, Apple TV? Is it the melding of design and technology and consumer understanding?

But Apple Inc's success is not the result of the work of one person, however able. It is the outcome of a distinctive culture, the creativity of its people and the ability to attract and retain capability in technology, design, marketing and the attraction and development of talent that fits their mould.

What Jobs has come to represent during his last stint as CEO is much more interesting, and as he steps away from the day-to-day leadership we may finally see the organisation's Achilles heel.

I have been highly critical of the 'cult' that has come to surround hero-leaders in business. Partly because no one leader can or should take the credit for the success of often thousands of others and partly because it isn't healthy: either for them as individuals or for the organisation itself. This is the context in which we should consider the impact of Steve Jobs on Apple and the future for Apple without him.

The problem posed by a leader who dominates any organisation is that, rather like a mighty tree in a forest, they create a massive shadow under which other people find it difficult to grow in stature. Not only that, but they can create an environment where they become the organisation.

In Louis XIV's immortal words: 'L'état: c'est moi'. This can create an organisation where confidence in its abilities, decisions, direction and brand are associated with the patronage, presence and participation of the leader. We have seen this starkly in the so-called 'Arab Spring' where the removal of dominant political leaders - however unpalatable - creates instability, uncertainty and a leadership vacuum.

Steve Jobs has been for many of his stakeholders (investors, staff, distributors, partners and customers) the personification of Apple. He now has a major challenge on his hands: in his new 'hands-off' role as Chairman he needs to show us the capable leaders in whom the organisation has confidence and to whom they can show the same levels of commitment and long-term support over the inevitable 'lows' as well as the 'highs' associated with a company for whom innovation is its lifeblood.

There is a penalty to be paid in becoming the organisation as a leader: the problem for leaders offered this tempting proposition in businesses, is that they don't often pay it. This bill is usually picked up by those that follow. It's not a legacy that I for one would want to leave behind.

Chris Bones, professor of creativity and leadership at Manchester Business School.

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