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  • Writer's pictureMichael Barton

The Cult of Steve

Note: This article is meant to be a “heads up” for young Founders and Executives who admire the great leaders and innovators in the tech and startup world. As a first-time or somewhat new leader, emulating heroes can be a good thing. Or not.

As the Founder or a new Executive of your company, are you a member of The Cult of Steve? Oh it's real, and I see it creating some big problems in many startups in and outside of Silicon Valley. There have probably been more articles, movies and books produced about Steve Jobs than about any other business leader since Rockefeller. Let's face it, he is this generation's business Superhero. Let's talk about the potential problems, and some practical lessons, of belonging to the Cult of Steve (or Elon, or Zuck, or Sergei).

"That's how Steve and Elon did it":

A few years ago I took on a client in Silicon Valley – a 20-something first-time Founder/Executive who created truly innovative technology in a space that was getting a lot of attention from valley VCs. He was a brilliant and charismatic guy, and quickly raised a lot of money and grew his company to 60 people. Then everything started falling apart. I was asked by a board member to get involved to consult with the company and coach the CEO/Founder.

On my first day in the office, the Founder took me to sit in on a meeting with his technology team. Within minutes, he took over the meeting from the CTO and spent the entire time berated each team member for their failures. He asked each engineer why they deserved to work for him. He then ushered me and the CTO into his office, sat us down and told me to “teach this guy how to be a CTO or he's out of the job", then walked out. Although this was not an easy thing to witness, I was at least getting great insight into this client.

I spent my time with the CTO asking how I could support him, then I circled back to the Founder and started a conversation about what had just happened. He was utterly shocked that I was questioning his management style. He truly thought he was using great skill to motivate his team. When I proposed that his actions might not be motivating but might actually be demoralizing, he asked me a truly stunning question.

“But don't I have to be asshole to grow this company? That’s how Steve and Elon did it”, as

if he knew personally what Steve and Elon did inside their companies on a daily basis.

I wish I could say this was limited to this Founder, but it's not. Another Silicon Valley client (again, a first-time Founder/CEO) told me he read an article about how Elon Musk micro-manages his people. Based on this, the Founder would go through the building every day and spend 20 minutes with as many Employees as possible looking over their work in detail and redirecting them as he saw fit. He did not coordinate this with the Employees' managers. Not surprisingly, one of the biggest complaints I heard from Employees in my initial discovery was that they got new direction every day, usually in conflict with what their boss was telling them. The biggest complaint I got from the Executive team was that they had no control over what was happening in their departments. The impact on the business was that products were never released on time, there was very high turnover among the best Employees, and there was tremendous resentment between the Executives and the Founder.

The New Reality Startups:

We are now witnessing an entire generation of businesses created and led by people who have not had any experience leading or managing people, or defining strategies, or building investor relationships, or designing and delivering products on time, or hiring high-performing teams, or delivering results with woefully inadequate resources, or . . . I once interviewed the executive team of a startup client, and one executive out of a leadership team of six had worked for a company prior to coming to this startup. The other five came straight out of university, or grad school, or the military.

No one is doing anything wrong here, it's just the new reality. Most universities now have "Entrepreneurship" programs, and smart creative people don't want to work in a cubicle doing boring jobs for big hierarchical companies.

There was a time when the idea of coming out of school and immediately starting a business was crazy. You worked for 5 or 10 years until you could afford to take a risk, then you started a company, or went to work at a startup for a deep cut in salary. The benefit of that old school approach was that people were coming into startups with deep skills in team work, problem solving, hitting deadlines, prioritizing, the magic stuff of which startups are made. Young people certainly understand the value of those skills, but they don't want to spend the painful years to build them.

So let's give these very courageous young leaders and entrepreneurs a break on this subject. AND at the same time, we would be stupid to ignore the truth - business experience really matters when you're leading a company with investors, and numerous employees, and customers, and complex products and services, and deadlines, and fast moving competitors.

Over the years, I’ve found that studying and emulating the behavior of "startup superheroes" is a common practice among the 20 and 30-something founders who have grown up with the mythology of Silicon Valley. They are working hard to find valid lessons for how to manage their business. What they have at their disposal is startup legend, and popular articles, books, and movies. And this is the problem.

Visionaries vs. Leaders:

Many of the business "superheroes" who started legendary, meteoric, successful, paradigm-shifting businesses succeeded in part because they had an idea who's time had come (Steve Jobs with the original Mac, Bill Gates with Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg with Facebook), or they understood what the consumer wanted and could articulate it better than the consumer could (Steve Jobs at Apple 2.0). This is not to say they were not brilliant innovators. They saw the future before anyone else and acted on that. I would say they even created that future, or at least a part of it. And that's brilliance and vision. But it's not leadership.

In addition, some of these superheroes (no names necessary), had horrible reputations as self-centered, myopic, demeaning leaders. Of course they were. They had a clear vision of what needed to build, and no one else could see it, and that's isolating and frustrating. They were young and inexperienced in leading, motivating and understanding other people. That's a dangerous combination. Reading the horror stories around the way these innovators managed people and assuming there is some rhyme or reason in it is making up magic that just was not there. Let's see it all as it truly was. They were great visionaries bringing new products to life at exactly the right time, and they were naive and inexperience leaders.

I've also seen more than a few founders who believe they must make their company successful at any cost, and that any action is justified. Any action is not justified. Some founders are certain that being demeaning and overly demanding of their employees is good management and motivational practice. It is not. Some Founders believe that creating a "win at any cost" culture is the key to success. It is not. Bad behavior and disrespectful treatment of employees in the startup community are rampant, well known and frequently reported, because Founders keep doing it and it's salacious reporting. It does not create success or sustainable growth.

The Lessons of the Cult of Steve:

OK, enough about the potential risks of the Cult of Steve/Zuck/Elon. There are also some wonderful business lessons to gain from this. Let's take a look at the 6 most relevant and powerful lessons I see coming from the Cult of Steve.

Management is learned through apprenticeship: You can't learn management by reading a Wired article, or a book, or even taking a university course. Management is learned through real life experience in the lab - which is called a business - and witnessing the results in real time. You learn to be a great manager by working with a great manager. Sure, you can learn a lot from working with the bad ones too, but you really learn artful management practices by working with someone who uses them every day.

The Better Approach: Find an experienced manager or successful business leader to work with you daily in the real world, or at least to be a frequent mentor.

Steve is dead and you didn't know him: This guy is gone. You did not work personally with him when he was alive. He didn't teach management classes. What we are left with now is myth, legend, and recounting of events through the mist of memory. This means you can be 100% certain that you are NOT getting the full and accurate story.

The Better Approach: Realize the difference between real-world management advice and myth. Stay away from the myth. Look to the actions your heroes took that lead to business success, and ignore the stories around those events.

Stories about good behavior don't sell: TechCrunch and Venture Beat are not going to publish articles about well thought out strategic decisions, good business practices, or highly effective executives. It's boring. It doesn't get attention from readers in today’s media noise. What they cover are stories about unusual, outrageous, and eccentric behavior. This is not “innovative leadership”, it’s really bad leadership. And yes, your idols were wildly successful, but not BECAUSE of their bad behavior. They were successful IN SPITE OF it, because someone in the company worked to overcome the flaws of their founder. These stories are never meant to be lessons in good management and leadership.

The Better Approach: A good story is not a management class. A press article is not validation. Think critically and independently. Question what is relevant and helpful in books and articles, then TEST IT by discussing it with an advisor.

No one person is responsible for success, not even Steve: One of my great mantras is "No one person is responsible for any success or any failure in business". Business is a team sport. Always has been, always will be. Even if you're a sole proprietor, such as a consultant, you're working with someone all the time. It's the only way you can make complex things come to life. Steve Jobs didn't build Apple on his own. There are a lot of marketing, engineering, finance, tech, manufacturing and design geniuses that created Apple right along with Steve. I know this is true because I know a couple of them personally.

The Better Approach: Build a great team, and share successes and failures with them every day. There is nothing more demeaning and demoralizing than not having your work be seen, your contribution be recognized. This is not an ethical issue. It's human nature. It’s leadership.

Learn from the best behavior, not the worst: From all accounts, Steve was a pretty awful guy in the early days. However, let's give this man credit for one of the greatest redemption stories in modern history. Steve's personal demons and practices in the early part of his life lead to some spectacular failures – alienating his own daughter so that he was not distracted from work, being so arrogant that the Apple board had to fire him, and the failure of Next. What he did after that was truly remarkable and inspiring. He changed. He evolved. He worked with a great leader, John Lasseter, at Pixar and he learned. (See notes above about learning management by working directly with a good one.) He repaired his relationships with his family. He became aware of his weaknesses his strengths. He built a great team that complimented him and he let them do their jobs. He gave up his arrogance and learned how to listen to his customers’ needs and give them great products.

The Better Approach: Everyone has wins and losses. You will too. Study their successes and their evolution. Try to see what they learned from their failures. Emulate your heros' strengths, not their weaknesses. Learn from their mistakes. You'll make plenty of new ones on your own.

Run your company the way only YOU can: You founded this company. It's your vision. It exists today because of your drive and passion and creative force. Why would you want to turn that over to anyone else? Living or dead? Mythical or real? Even though there will be a time to move on, (and that time will come), you’re driving it NOW. I know there's a lot of new-age mumbo jumbo about “Be the best YOU you can be”. However, in business, this is some of the best advice you can ever follow. You bring a very unique vision and set of skills and strengths to the table. Use those, every day.

The Better Approach: Don't try to copy someone's personality or style or thinking. Do the things that you’re good at every day. Build real awareness of your weaknesses. If you're not sure, and most of us aren't, ask your mentor/coach to help you see your weaknesses. Build a team around you that covers your weaknesses. This is why it's called a TEAM. You're all working together to be far stronger than any of you can be as individuals.

NOTE: Admitting what you don't do well is hard. It takes strength and self-confidence. Are you up for that?

We all have our heroes and idols we look up to in business and in life. And we should. It's one of the ways we create, set goals, clarify our values and build successes. I too am fascinated by Steve Jobs. Not because he created one of the most valuable companies in the world, but because of his redemption, his journey and his courage. After all is said and done, Steve's greatest accomplishment was the arc of his life, including, but not limited to, his impressive business success.

New founders and executives, please listen to the guy who's been around the block a few times and do me a favor this once. Be hyper-sensitive to who you worship, to the practices you emulate, to what you take from them. Just be aware if you're even a little seduced by the Cult of Steve, or Elon, or Zuck, or Sheryl, or Sergey. Copy their best practices and let their personalities fall into myth. Find a great mentor or advisor to work with in REAL life. Consciously try to grow your strengths. Be highly aware of your weaknesses and call them out. Build a great team. Be you.


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