Steve Jobs and the Leadership Test

Last Updated Jan 19, 2011 3:47 PM EST

The unexpected news that Steve Jobs will take a leave of absence from Apple has sparked a high-profile debate over what his medical condition means for the long-term healthy of the company. To me, though, what's interesting about the collective fascination with Jobs is what it says about how uncertain we are about the health of so many other companies-and how poor the prognosis is for what passes as "leadership" at most companies today.

Why do so many of us think that Steve Jobs is so special and irreplaceable at Apple? Because, I think, he represents a model of leadership that is so hard to find elsewhere. The true mark of a leader is the willingness to stick with a bold course of action - an unconventional business strategy, a unique product-development roadmap, a controversial marketing campaign - even as the rest of the world wonders why you're not marching in step with the status quo. In other words, real leaders are happy to zig while others zag. They understand that in an era of hyper-competition and non-stop disruption, the only way to stand out from the crowd is to stand for something special.

Middle of the Road Strategy No Longer Works
It's just not good enough anymore to be "pretty good" at everything today. You have to be the most of something: the most elegant, the most colorful, the most responsive, the most focused. For decades, organizations and their leaders were comfortable with strategies and practices that kept them in the middle of the road - that's where the customers were, that's what felt safe and secure. In the new world of business, with so much change, so much pressure, so many new ways to do just about everything, the middle of the road has become the road to nowhere.

As Jim Hightower, the colorful Texas populist, is fond of saying, "There's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos." To which we might add companies and their leaders struggling stand out from the crowd. No one has ever accused Steve Jobs and Apple of operating in the middle of the road, which is why the company and its CEO are such objects of fascination.

Success Requires a Bold Vision

But at least a few other companies and leaders seem to be taking their cues from Cupertino. Consider the unique business strategy and retail experience being created by Luxottica, the global eyewear company with annual sales of $6.6 billion. A report in the New York Times described its "unusual and risky" effort to reimagine the customer experience of buying eyeglasses, by creating memorable retail environments that feature a concierge, wind machines and treadmills (to allow shoppers to try on glasses in conditions that resemble real-world usage, and touch screens that operate as mirrors and cameras. (Imagine being able to try on glasses, upload photos to Facebook, and asking friends and family to email reactions while you're still shopping.)

There was something of a raised-eyebrow tone to the Times report, and who knows if Luxottica's plans to build 10 to 15 of these stores in Australia, the United States, China, and Britain, will turn out to be a flash of insight or a flawed vision. What's clear though, is that in an industry ravaged by a bad economy (new glasses are a pretty postpone-able purchase), and by the cheaper-is-better pressures of the Internet, the route to long-term prosperity does not come by staying in the middle of the road.

Andrea Guerra, Luxottica's CEO, put it about as well as anyone has: "Crises are not only about negative things," he said. "Where the world is changing and changing fast, your thoughts have to be bold."

Steve Jobs could not have said it better himself. It's hard to overcome the pull of conventional wisdom - established ways of doing things, familiar ways to size up markets. That's why it's hard for leaders to do something genuinely new - to embrace one-of-a-kind ideas in a world filled with me-too thinking. But that's the job description for leadership today. After all, if you do things the way everyone else does things, why would you expect to do any better?

How are you planning to zig while everyone else zags?

Image courtesy of Flickr user, acaben

  • William Taylor

    William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. His new book is Practically Radical. You can follow him on Twitter at @practicallyrad.