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Did Steve Jobs Overreact?

In the latest issue of Fortune, Adam Lashinsky details Steve Jobs’ hands-on managerial style as well as his meltdown after the rocky and buggy 2008 debut of Apple’s cloud based storage service MobileMe. After a number of horrible reviews of the service, Lashinsky claims that Jobs let the executives responsible for the debacle have it, and have it good. Jobs’ reportedly told the offending team that they “…should hate each other for having let each other down” and that their failures had “tarnishing Apple’s reputation.”

So is this tirade by Jobs an example of a leader who is overreacting? By ripping into the MobileMe team, did Jobs go too far and do damage to his ablity to lead effectively? As we will see, the answer to both questions is no.

On the surface, this blow-up would seem like just another CEO throwing a tantrum any six year old would be proud of, but in fact this incident is the perfect example of that even when frustrated Steve Jobs keeps his eyes on the collective. He supposedly fired the entire MobileMe production team, but it was done to teach others within the company that what failed wasn’t simply a product but the sense of the collective which has made for Apple’s success.

I am guessing that everytime there is a minor problem at Apple, Jobs doesn’t fire entire teams, but sometimes you have to make loud moves to keep everyone’s eyes on the collective prize. With this in mind it’s  important to highlight the fact that pointless overacting can be a major problem for leaders.

As I discuss in my book Keep Them on Your Side, there is a least one over-reactive leader in nearly every organization. They are the leaders who take every piece of information, every strand of data, and take action based on that information. These leaders seem to be unable to prioritize or filter the fundamentally important information they receive from the anecdotal, anomalous information that is pervasive in organizations.

You’ve seen or heard it before. Someone will come into the office and declare, “We’ve been getting a lot of complaints (read: two) about our new software upgrade.” The overreactive leader may take that information, call up the lead programmer on the project, and demand that a new version be created immediately. Overreacting is a strategy that leaders choose to assure that they won’t be perceived as “falling asleep at the wheel.”

What over-reactive leaders fail to realize is that with each shift, they are sapping the momentum they’ve built from past action. Think of it like rolling a ball bearing down an incline. If you let the ball bearing roll untouched, momentum builds. But what happens if after the first couple of seconds, you redirect the ball bearing with your finger? Then what happens when you redirect it another second later? Then another? The ball may come to a virtual stop or, worse, it will keep moving but in a jerky motion, never really building up any critical mass. This is a metaphor for how team members experience initiatives run by over-reactive leaders.

From all that we’ve read, it’s clear that Steve Jobs demands an almost mythical level of excellence and in cases like the MobileMe debacle, he can also use tough-talk, anger and outright dismissal as a motivational tool. But in no way does that make him an over-reactive leader. Steve Jobs has built the Apple brand around the idea that the company’s products are cutting edge, user-friendly and most importantly highly functional and reliable. That is the vision of the company and when the company and its workers fail to reach those heights it’s up to a leader like Steve Jobs to bring his people together to not only solve the problem but also make sure it doesn’t happen again. “Bringing people together” doesn’t always mean sitting in a circle around a roaring campfire and sharing your innermost feelings. Sometimes you have to drop an f-bomb or two to make those you lead remember the over-arching and communal reasons for previous successes.

As long as you don’t overdo it, strong and forceful reactions can work in your favor. But it’s crucial to remember that people who work on projects led by over-reactive leaders are likely to burn out or become frustrated by the frenetic action and stunted progress of the initiative. Too much time is spent asking—and answering—the question, “Where are we going next?” In this situation, it is difficult for the leader to make sure the work gets done and that things keep moving. Over time, people are more likely not to do work, fully expecting that priorities and objectives will change shortly. When behavior reaches this point, an initiative has lost, and is unlikely to regain, momentum. You can run around frantically saying the sky is falling once in a while, but if you do it every other day, you’ll kill momentum.

In the end there will be times when you will need to lose your temper and act decisively like Steve Jobs did in 2008. The key is you need to remember to pick your spots wisely. You must avoid casting and attributing blame causality. Your goal must be to make adjustments while keeping people on your side.

-Adam Lashinsky’s article “Inside Apple” is available in the latest issue of Fortune for iPad as well as from Amazon for your Kindle. It will also be in the May 23 print edition of Fortune.


photo: traveling.lunas