Thursday, September 10, 2009

Leadership vs. arrogance

At a recent meeting, we were talking about Carly Fiorina, what she did to HP that almost destroyed the company, and the sad state of leadership in corporate America today. "They're arrogant," someone said. "They had it good for so many years, and thought it was all their own doing." I disagreed. "Steve Jobs is arrogant. The problem is leadership, not arrogance."

To put it bluntly: Steve Jobs is an arrogant jerk. He has decided opinions about what his products should look like, and if you're one of his employees and going to go up against him, you better have a darn good reason for why what you're going to do is going to make the product easier to use for the majority of customers or add functionality that the majority of customers (not just a few geeks) need. You better have data, reasons, pretty pictures showing how it makes the product more consistent and easier to use, and so forth. If you can't do that, he'll tell you to go away and do it his way. When Steve came back to Apple he came back to a company in chaos, where multiple fiefdoms were feuding, where all attempts to replace the failing MacOS 9 were shot down as "too risky", where Apple's products were starting to look just like everybody else's beige boxes except running an OS far inferior to Windows NT or even Windows 95 on any technical basis. There was no shortage of talent. What there was, was a shortage of leadership -- someone who would take that talent, listen to what they had to say, process it, then say "This is what we're going to do, bang bang bang" and people walk out with their marching orders knowing exactly what they're going to do, why they're going to do it, and that failing to do it is not an option. It took, in effect, a real jerk being in charge who could rein in all these prima donnas and get them all rowing in the same direction.

Unfortunately, it's as if all of modern-day corporate America thinks being a jerk is how to be a leader. It's not. Rather, having decided opinions about what makes a product line the best in the world, opinions informed by listening to dozens of people then applying your own judgement, is what makes a leader. It's that whole vision thing, once again. That takes a certain degree of arrogance to push that vision onto a company because, let's face it, most of us in engineering are pretty arrogant ourselves. If we've been in the business for a number of years, we've seen companies come and go, we've seen products come and go, we've developed our own opinions about what makes a good product and what makes a bad one. But what a lot of managers and far too many CEO's get confused about is that they think being arrogant is leadership. It's not. It's a common product of leadership, but leadership is something else entirely -- call it vision. And given that many CEO's got their job by sucking up to the Board of Directors rather than having any vision of their own, they're followers by nature, not leaders. They're like the former CEO of DEC whose idea of "leadership" was to survey current owners of DEC VAX minicomputers asking them what they wanted as future products from DEC. Their answer was, of course, bigger and faster DEC VAX minicomputers. You'll notice that DEC is no longer in business -- because following is not leading whether you're following customers, following industry trends, or following conventional wisdom. And you can follow for only so long before you fall so far behind that you end up going down the tubes.

Yet these followers believe that, by being arrogant and expressing uninformed opinions that they refuse to change despite all data to the contrary, that this turns them into leaders. That is the problem with far too many companies today -- they are led by scared followers who are afraid that they're going to be found out as frauds, as not really being leaders, and who thus try to bluster their way into being seen as leaders via arrogance and inflexibility. But for a real manager, whether we're talking about a team lead or a CEO, all that manages to do is create an unmotivated, disillusioned work force that in the end is not going to create the innovations needed to move the company forward.

And that's the end of today's discussion of leadership. I'm going to return to this more in the future, because leadership is one of those things that is hard to quantify, but you know it when you see it. I'll further attempt to quantify it anyhow because, well, I'm just arrogant that way (heh), I always want to understand things and the best way to do that is to quantify it. And hopefully that effort might be useful both to myself, and to future team leads. We'll see, eh?

- Eric

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