The Leadership Substitute

By Doug Magill

 There can be no doubt that the average man blames much more than he praises. His instinct is to blame.  Golda Meir

With the passing of Steve Jobs it is natural that we should reflect on what he accomplished.  But, more than that we should reflect on who he was.

And, clearly, he was a leader.

The subject of leadership has been on the minds of most of the nation these last few months, as we take stock of the occupant of the White House in these dismal times, and contrast him to the members of Congress and those who would replace him.

I remember an email exchange a few years ago relative to then-candidate Obama, and carefully explained that he had not demonstrated executive or leadership skills.  My correspondent, a young lady of otherwise incandescent intelligence, was incensed.  Any real discussion was precluded by her acquired racial guilt and the emotional potential for moral superiority in all things liberal.

I intended to follow up with an outline of some basic things to look for in a leader.  I hesitated because of my feeling that the reflexive self-satisfaction of liberalism precluded analysis.  I thought I would wait for another time.  Perhaps that time is now: Steve Jobs was a transforming leader, and should be remembered for more than the technological marvels that he orchestrated.

Above all else a leader has a vision.  It is clear, specific, and is communicated to those who would follow him.  It is not a vapid collection of concepts and soaring generalizations that seem inspirational, but clarify nothing.  Steve Jobs had a vision of excellence that was uncompromising and clear.  He drove others to embrace his vision – certainly at times in ways that would make social scientists and psychologists all over the country blanche.   Yet, those around him knew what he wanted, and how high he set the standards.

For our president, his declining poll numbers reflect dissatisfaction with his leadership, and with him.  The lofty phrases hid pedestrian goals that were little more than the resurrection of failed social and economic policies that were predicted to lead to economic and spiritual stagnation.  And as that has become clear, the populace doesn’t see a vision, but a stoking of envy and score-settling.

A leader communicates his vision clearly and constantly.  It is referenced and clarified in all that is proposed and implemented.  Jobs understood this, and his efforts led to a culture of innovation at Apple that is unsurpassed anywhere else in industry.  He converted people to his vision through his words and his actions.

Our president now complains and doesn’t really explain his vision.  The hectoring condescension devolves further into blame.

Leadership is predicated on a foundation of confidence and a depth of emotional maturity that is exceptional in any circumstances.  Lincoln, though not considered charismatic, drew people to him with his wit, his insights, and his clarity of thought.  He sought out rivals and built a cabinet of opponents and men who thought they were smarter than he was.  Yet, he led them, and got them to work together on his vision.  Though he suffered from depression, he harnessed the cacophony from intellects around him to help himself understand and hone his own vision.  He didn’t doubt himself in reference to others.

Jobs had that emotional foundation as well.  Raised by adoptive parents who sacrificed to send him to college, he understood his value.  And, showing that leadership capability that has served him so well, he left college early because he didn’t want his parents to sacrifice so much for what he perceived didn’t have the value that the cost implied.  Still, in later years he would let others know how much he learned once he pursued classes that interested him, rather than what he was supposed to take.

Obama now comes across as thin-skinned, arrogant and unwilling to be challenged.  He is known to be more attuned to the flattery of those in the media than the mood and needs of the country.  And he has not drawn leaders to him and molded them into a team.  In fact he is unable to keep his economic team together in difficult times – a clear sign of leadership failure.  According to David Susskind, even Larry Summers told him there that was no adult in charge at the Obama White House.  And, supposedly, Eric Holder has openly defied him.  Leaders are clearly in charge.  Obama shows no evidence of this.

Failure can be the wheel against which the skills of leaders are sharpened.  Great leaders have sometimes had great failures.  At the least they have had a great deal of experience to learn perspective and develop insight.  According to Peter Drucker, “Effectiveness, in other words, is a habit; that is, a complex of practices.”

Steve Jobs told Stanford’s graduating class that his termination from Apple after the success of the Macintosh was the best thing that happened to him.  It forced him to rediscover what he loved, and to rekindle that passion for excellence.  When he returned to Apple he transformed it.

Our president has no history of failure to help him learn humility, resilience, depth of character, and a rediscovery of his passion.  Indeed, he has little in the way of experience to indicate he would understand the demands of being an executive.  From a comfortable prep school to conveniently liberal university and law schools his way was smoothed and the difficulties were few.  He has no history of being challenged, defeated, and becoming stronger.  That is why he is unable to take true criticism now, and learn from his mistakes.

While it takes a healthy measure of ego to climb the ladder of any profession, those who are the most effective leaders develop the humility of achievement, which allows them to tackle ever bigger problems.  They do not rest on their laurels but are anxious to tackle the next big issue.  The truly effective ones know it won’t be easy, and they drive people with their vision.  Steve Jobs was known for his ego, but he never let his success devolve into narcissism.  He knew his vision was deeper and clearer than those around him, but it was always about the products that he wanted to change to direction of technology with, not about him.

In August the University of Amsterdam published the results of a leadership study in the journal Psychological Science.  As reported in The Daily Mail, “while narcissists are convincing leaders, they are so consumed by their own brilliance that it actually cripples their creativity and often causes them to make bad decisions.”  Among their conclusions was an observation that “Leaders with the largest egos had the most negative effect on their group’s overall performance.  They were too self-centered and authoritarian to communicate properly or listen to their colleagues.”

Lincoln once cautioned us, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”  We are now seeing past the shadow to the real character of Obama.  We see a wind-blown sapling, not an oak like Steve Jobs.

Doug Magill is a consultant, freelance writer, and voice-over talent.  He can be reached at


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