The pleasures and pitfalls of working with a leader prone to sharp mood swings were writ large in a 14 May Facebook post  by technologist John Carmack: head of gaming studio Id Software. In the post, Carmack reminisces about being asked to consult for Steve Jobs on how Apple should implement gaming software across its various platforms.
He admits, “I had a lot of arguments with Steve,” and notes: “It was often frustrating, because he could talk, with complete confidence, about things he was just plain wrong about … But when I knew what I was talking about, I would stand my ground against anyone.”
Carmack recalls: “One time, my wife – then fiancée – and I were meeting with Steve at Apple, and he wanted me to do a keynote that happened to be scheduled on the same day as our wedding. With a big smile and full of charm, he suggested that we postpone it. We declined, but he kept pressing. Eventually my wife countered with a suggestion that if he really wanted ‘her’ John so much, he should loan John Lasseter [head of then-Apple owned film studio Pixar] to her media company for a day of consulting. Steve went from full charm to ice cold really damn quick. I didn’t do that keynote.”
On the other hand, he writes: “When I was preparing an early technology demo of [gory action game] Doom 3 for a keynote in Japan, I was having a hard time dealing with some of the managers involved that were insisting that I change the demo because ‘Steve doesn’t like blood.’ I knew that Doom 3 wasn’t to his taste, but that wasn’t the point of doing the demo. I brought it to Steve, with all the relevant people on the thread. He replied to everyone with: ‘I trust you John, do whatever you think is great.’ That goes a long way, and nobody said a thing after that.”
Carmack stresses that the ‘Steve Jobs rollercoaster’ was real, adding: “I corroborate many of the negative character traits that he was infamous for, but elements of the path that led to where I am today were contingent on the dents he left in the universe.”
How should boards and co-workers handle leadership figures with such traits?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Firstly, it’s important to stress that Steve Jobs is very much an exception here, rather than the rule, and aping his characteristics or behaviour will not automatically make someone ‘Steve Jobs’. Secondly, it’s critically important to emphasise the need for consistency. We don’t want to work with people who are unpredictable or volatile. Leaders who sometimes support us and sometimes don’t are incredibly anxiety-provoking, stress-inducing characters.
“Similarly,” Cooper notes, “apply significant scepticism to people who speak with huge confidence about things of which they know very little. Of course, those individuals can be compelling and seductive – there’s a swagger about them that can be hugely reassuring. But those people more often than not need to be challenged, because their lack of substantial information to back up their confidence can be extremely damaging to organisations. Decisions made off the back of either poor – or just plain wrong – information can have a devastating domino effect.”
Cooper points out: “self-awareness is a great place to start. Very often, we find that a lot of the traits we disdain in others are actually behaviours we ourselves engage in, without knowing that we’re doing it. So take our self-awareness scorecard to see how effectively your own reflexes are operating on this front. And really think about other people’s need for consistency, predictability and a lack of volatility.”
She adds: “It doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be creative tension or differences of opinion. But what is particularly unhelpful for team members is if you express one view today, and then another tomorrow. That typically signifies autocratic leadership, because what you’re conveying is that each decision is yours, and is ultimately at the mercy of your whims.”
For further thoughts on the value of self-awareness, check out these learning resources from the Institute
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