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Steve Jobs: The role model CEO

Last updated on: September 08, 2011 10:26 IST

Like Alfred Hitchcock, the 'micro-manager' of film-making, auteur CEO Steve Jobs lifted the modern firm out of the Industrial Age and brought it into the Information Age, says Ajit Balakrishnan.

Steve Jobs, co-founder, visionary and CEO of Apple, whose creations much of the word craves, left centre stage in August this year. He is only 56. His 142-word resignation letter was as minimalist as the design of Apple products.

It read: "I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple's CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come."

News items about retiring CEOs feature almost daily nowadays and I, for one, barely look at them. But I must confess to shedding a silent tear when I read about this one.

A kaleidoscope of images flashed through my mind: the TV commercial that introduced the first Macintosh; the unveiling of the iPod in 2001 that inaugurated the era of gadgets connected to the Internet; the 2007 launch of the iPhone instantly rendering all other mobile phones obsolete; and, most of all, Mr Jobs' moving speech at Stanford in 2005.

"My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption," he had said describing the painful situation following his birth.

His biological parents were Abdulfattah Jandali, a Syrian, and Joanne Simpson Schieble, an American — they had met as graduate students.

The declaration of the arrival of the Information Age for many of us was the Macintosh computer and the TV commercial that introduced it. The commercial was subtly based on George Orwell's novel 1984.

It opened in a dark blue and grey industrial setting with a line of workers marching in lockstep through a long tunnel. A woman appeared carrying a large hammer, chased by security guards in black uniforms.

She raced towards a large screen with an image of a Big Brother-like figure, hurled the hammer at it and the screen was destroyed in a flurry of light and smoke.

This was followed by a caption that suggested Macintosh would liberate the world from the tyrannical and centralised world that George Orwell had prophesied.

Mr Jobs' resignation has prompted various eulogies, with many aptly calling him America's greatest industrialist ranked right up there with the likes of Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie. But many also made references to his "micro-managing". Such reports make me sad.

I believe Mr Jobs will be remembered the most for his alleged micro-managing. It showed that he was the first "auteur" CEO of a major company.

The term auteur, French for author, is used in film theory and holds that a film reflects its director's personal creative vision. In the early days, film-making was seen as an industrial process.

Then, directors like Alfred Hitchcock with Psycho, The Birds and Rear Window and Ingmar Bergman with Wild Strawberries, showcasing their distinctive, recognisable style, lifted film-making from its base industrial level.

In the world of management, the CEO is seen by many as the manager of administrative processes.

This misunderstanding can be traced back to Alfred Sloan and his famous memoir, My Years with General Motors. Mr Sloan idealised the CEO as a rational, shrewd plutocrat managing a firm with detachment.

Much of management theory, keeping industrial era firms in focus, has been based on this. The CEO, in this vision, is seen to be the man on top of the pile, the unemotional head of a command-and-control hierarchy.

Even the one emotion that was allowed to him, a messianic belief in the gospel of shareholder value maximisation, has been denied since Jack Welch, the legendary former CEO of GE, has dismissed that as "the dumbest idea in the world".

Mr Jobs' place in management history is assured for being the role model CEO who spent most of his waking hours obsessing about making their products "insanely great".

His auteur touch was evident when the iPhone debuted in 2007. The mobile phone industry was dumbfounded.

The keyboard, once seen integral to a mobile phone, had disappeared, replaced by a software keyboard animated by touch. The rest of the industry spent the next four years trying to catch up with this.

A new reality had appeared. Even for physical products, the software platform on which they were built and their aesthetic usability became the source of competitive advantage.

Manufacturing the physical part of the product contributes so little to the competitive advantage that it is outsourced to low-cost producers.

And like Hitchcock and Bergman, the "micro-managers" of film-making, auteur CEO Steve Jobs lifted the modern firm out of the Industrial Age and brought it into the Information Age.

Ajit Balakrishnan
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