James Cameron and Steve Jobs: Passionate Leadership

Last Updated Mar 16, 2010 1:59 PM EDT

In a recent profile of Avatar director James Cameron on HBR.org, Rebecca Keegan outlines five leadership rules the director brings to each movie set. Reading it, I was struck by how Cameron's style matches what we've learned about Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

But don't go teaching these traits, which admittedly produce incredible innovation, to MBA students. In fact, following any of these styles will get you fired -- unless you have the inspiration genius that can deliver results like Cameron and Jobs.

Here are three areas where the computer and cinema wunderkinds overlap.

Bonding Through Innovation
Cameron. "Breaking new ground is Cameron's raison d'être -- nothing interests this man unless it's hard to do," Keegan writes. "But innovation has also become a way of bonding his teams... For Cameron, a sense of exploration isn't just personally enriching, it's a crucial tool for motivating and uniting his teams."

Jobs. When Jobs created the original Macintosh team in the early 1980s, he moved the group to a remote building on the Apple campus, raised a pirate flag above the roof, and moved in a popcorn machine to give his people a sense of esprit de corps. Today, management experts prefer you unite your groups rather than pitting them against each other, but they also love the idea of inspiring your team with sense of purpose they can rally around.

More Perfection, Please
Cameron. On Avatar, Keegan reports, "Hours were spent on the smallest details, like getting alien sap to drip precisely right.... It's hard to argue with Cameron's nitpicky style, however, when audiences thrill to immerse themselves in the richly detailed worlds he creates."

Jobs: Just weeks before launch of the original iPhone, Apple decided to replace the plastic touch screen with optical-quality glass. The change not only delayed the introduction, but caused its screen vendor, Balda, to reconfigure parts of its assembly line "causing a material impact on financials," according to AppleInsider. For Jobs, however, the aesthetic of the product would have been ruined by an inferior screen.

Inspiration Through Fear
Again, not a great trait you'd teach to MBAs, but both Cameron and Jobs are stern taskmasters who demand the most of their employees, and occasionally cross the line to get it.

Cameron. "Many Cameron alumni will share a story from their first film with him, a day they were sure they were going to be fired, almost hoped for it. But Cameron rarely fires people. 'Firing is too merciful,' he says. Instead he tests their endurance for long hours, hard tasks, and harsh criticism. Survivors tend to surprise themselves by turning in the best work of their careers, and signing on for Cameron's next project."

Jobs. ""It was probably the best work I ever did," former Apple designer Corsdell Ratzlaff told Inside Steve's Brain author Leander Kahaney. "It was exhilratating. It was exciting. Sometimes it was difficult, but he had the ability to pull the best out of people."

If these men, both brilliant in their own fields, managed by the book, I doubt they would be nearly as successful. What they share is passion for the work, and their management styles both demand and instill passion in the people that work around them.

Have you worked for someone with the passion exhibited by Cameron and Jobs? What was the experience like, and what did you take away from the experience?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.