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February 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 5

Principal Connection / Lessons from Steve Jobs

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What can school leaders learn from Steve Jobs's career and from the success of Apple Inc.? Jobs was a larger-than-life individual who changed the world with his inspiration and tenacity. He has been favorably compared to Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Pablo Picasso, geniuses in invention, manufacturing, and art.
But Jobs was a complex figure. His compelling public persona—standing on stage ushering in a new "must-have" product, wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, but mostly attired in charisma that didn't quit—stands in sharp contrast with his behavior as a CEO. He violated practically every leadership tenet and apparently wasn't a very pleasant person.
In a November 14, 2011, New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell calls Jobs a bully and says, "Even within Apple, Jobs was known for taking credit for others' ideas." Writing in the October 27, 2011, Rolling Stone, Jeff Goodell says "Those who knew Jobs best and worked with him most closely … were always struck by his abrasive personality, his unapologetic brutality. He screamed, he cried, he stomped his feet" (p. 38). In his 2011 biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson said, "Driven by demons, he could drive those around him to fury and despair" (p. xxi).
Jobs's style flies in the face of conventional thinking about leaders and leadership. But his willingness to demean others and his disdain for seeking input didn't prevent Apple from becoming the world's most valuable company.
Unfortunately, Jobs is not alone in exhibiting leadership behaviors that humiliate others. All too often, coaches verbally abuse their players and engage in temper tantrums. One of the lowlights of Bobby Knight's basketball coaching career was when he threw a chair onto the court in a fit of anger. And yet their teams win lots of games. How can this be?
Perhaps the difference is that Steve Jobs and Bobby Knight were most interested in running up the score. Whether selling more computers or winning more games, there was a scorecard. In Jobs's mind, his success was based on producing the perfect device, and that would result in sales. In Coach Knight's world, the goal was playing a perfect game, and success was measured by a win-loss record.
In schools, it's different. Sure, we want to win, but winning is defined as students doing well in many ways. High standardized test scores are one goal, but every successful educator I know also focuses on developing people. We want our students to learn scholastic skills, but we also want them to become good people, responsible citizens who value others and work to make the world a better place. We want our teachers to teach well, but we also want them to learn with and from one another, and we want them to care for their students and one another. We want parents to collaborate with us to support students' learning. This kind of success can't be measured in sales, stock prices, or how often a team wins championships. It's elusive, amorphous, and terribly important.
The messages we send by how we treat others make a difference throughout our organizations. If we want our teachers to feel comfortable showing that they listen and care, we need to exhibit those traits, too. If we want our students to treat one another with respect and dignity, we need to model those behaviors daily.
One of the challenges of our job is that we have responsibilities in so many areas. Student achievement comes first, but we also monitor budgets, talk to teachers, supervise the lunchroom, sign off on field trips, meet and greet parents, sit in on assessments, join parent-teacher conferences, lead meetings, cheer athletic teams and artistic performances, make sure the restrooms are clean, check that supplies are received—and sometimes we manage to visit classrooms.
The list is exhausting, but there's a common thread. Every interaction should take place in a spirit of respect, trust, and care. That doesn't mean we don't get frustrated or make mistakes; it does mean that we value those around us. Maybe having all of these goals, instead of focusing only on sales or wins, makes it easier to remember and follow our values.
Sometimes we learn by watching and emulating, and at other times we learn by observing so we will know what not to do. In some respects, Jobs's leadership was remarkable. Isaacson says, "For all of his obnoxious behaviors, Jobs also had the ability to instill in his team an esprit de corps. After tearing people down, he would find ways to lift them up and make them feel that being part of the Macintosh team was an amazing mission" (p. 142).
I admire the products that were created under Jobs's leadership, and I sure wish I owned lots of Apple stock. But I'm very glad I work in a setting that wouldn't tolerate his sort of behaviors. Steve Jobs's behaviors remind me that success is also measured by how we treat others. That's difficult to capture on a scorecard, but it's too important to ignore.
References

Gladwell, M. (2011, November 14). The tweaker: The real genius of Steve Jobs. The New Yorker. Retrieved from www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/11/14/111114fa_fact_gladwell.

Goodell, J. (2011, October 27). The Steve Jobs nobody knew. Rolling Stone, 1142, 37–42.

Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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