Steve Jobs and Motivation

In his book titled Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson describes the roller-coaster life and searingly intense personality of Steve Jobs. The picture Isaacson draws is not of a man who builds motivated people.

Jobs is described as a man who cared most about perfectionism and control; a man driven by demons who could drive those around him to fury and despair. Yet it is hard to dispute his success.

In the last two decades, professional literature about change in organizations is saturated with positivism. Motivation that comes from encouraging and supporting people is not a bad thing, of course. But motivation, like empowerment and engagement, which have become very popular key terms, should never stand alone. It is business we are talking about, and we should remember that any effort to build motivation should be designed to achieve results.

The fact is, motivation and engagement don’t always lead to desired results. Some teams will be extremely willing to improve, but not apply needed changes in a lasting way. Others will respond with extreme resistance and will completely ignore any efforts to be involved or motivated.

Don’t get me wrong, I deeply believe happy and engaged people are better for business, but not if the goal of making people happy becomes what we worship, forgetting the purpose it was supposed to serve. Sometimes to get people engaged you need to be unpleasant, set boundaries or even be intimidating. In most cases, people won’t follow a leadership that doesn’t care about people, but there is a huge difference between caring about people as part of business and caring about people above all else. The key is to negotiate different strategies according to the unique requirements of each team and situation, not to define values that need to be the new light we all should follow.

According to the reviews of 1,096 Apple employees, though fairness and respect are ranked 2 (on a scale of 1 to 5), employee morale is ranked at 4 and senior leadership is ranked 5. My take is that under certain circumstances a perfectionist, demonized control freak can successfully compete with any leader, and that organizations should stop looking for ideal models and find the unique combination of values and strategies that are right specifically for them.

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