on Friday, 31 January 2014. Posted in Leadership & Management

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The late Steve Jobs headed the most successful company in the world. With Apple Inc.’s revolutionary technology and constant innovation many might be surprised to know that as a leader Jobs adopted quite the authoritarian approach to business, innovation, and management. In his best-seller The Cult of the Amateur, author Andrew Keen writes about the late CEO:

“There’s not an ounce of democracy at Apple. That’s what makes it a paragon of such traditional corporate values as top-down leadership, sharply hierarchical organisation and centralised control. It’s Steve’s company – pursuing his vision, at his pace, with his team, making his products. Without Steve Jobs’ authoritarian leadership, Apple would be just another Silicon Valley outfit...”

It is generally acknowledged that Apple Inc.’s success was largely due to Jobs’ authoritarian leadership style. In his reflections on Jobs, Virgin’s Richard Branson stated that there is no secret formula to leadership, as he believes that all true leaders go about things in their own way. The critical point to Branson is the ability to think differently that sets leaders apart, and it is this ability that he believes allowed Jobs to create the most respected brand in the world. Branson wrote the following about the entrepreneur he admired most:

“Steve Jobs’s leadership style was autocratic; he had a meticulous eye for detail, and surrounded himself with like-minded people to follow his lead. While he was incredibly demanding of his people, he wasn’t the best delegator – he wanted to involve himself in every detail, which is the opposite of my own approach.”

Branson’s own approach to leadership can be categorised more as charismatic. Unlike Jobs, he believes in delegation and ensures that he finds the best possible people for Virgin who he gives the freedom and encouragement to flourish. In a move that some leaders might find difficult to make, Branson separated himself physically from Virgin Records when he set it up by moving into a houseboat. His reasoning was that his absence would force other people to make decisions, which in turn improves their own leadership skills, builds their confidence and ultimately strengthens the business you are running. Branson further explains:

“But whatever your approach, it is necessary to give other people the space to thrive, to catch people doing something right, rather than getting things wrong. Look for people who take their roles seriously and lead from the front, but who are not slow to see the lighter side of life. People who are inventive yet organised, focused yet fun, tend to be determined to succeed, and equally keen to have a good time doing it. A company should genuinely be a family, who achieve together, grow together and laugh together.”

In technical terms the leadership styles of these great entrepreneurs fall into the categories of charismatic/transformational and authoritarian/transactional. The authoritarian/transactional leadership style, also referred to as autocratic, is often considered the classical approach. This approach involves managers retaining much of the power and decision-making authority. There is not much consultation with employees, nor are they expected to provide much input into processes. They are expected to obey orders receiving little or no explanations. The motivation environment is created through a structured set of (financial) rewards and punishment. Leaders in this category are said to rely on threats and punishment to influence employees and tend not trust their workforce. This approach is effective in quick decision-making, when employing many low skilled workers. It is typical an environment that involves high-volume production, as well as supervision that requires detailed orders and instructions. This approach evolved out of the industrialisation period with manufacturing taking off. The mining industries would also fall into this category of leadership approaches. The transactional component involves a system of income/rewards by using incentives to encourage higher standards or greater productivity. It remains a standard practice in many organisations. This practice however has limitations in knowledge-based or creative work.

Charismatic leadership is often said to appear similar to transformational leadership style, but there are differences. Charismatic leadership is characterised by the leader’s ability to inject and motivate huge doses of enthusiasm into his/her team using his/her energy to drive the company. The charismatic approach poses a risk as its reliance on a ‘personality’ to drive the process may not sustain the organisation if the leader were to leave. Transformational leadership involves a leader who inspires his/her team with a shared vision of the future. These leaders are highly visible and value communication in their approach. Richard Branson fits into this category. Branson is known to walk the floors of his companies in order to get to know his people. He listens to their ideas, he is visible to his employees, and open to learn from them. He stated that: “no one respects a leader who doesn’t know how to get his hands dirty and innovate personally. The trick is in striking the right balance between empowering your staff and being an example for them to follow.” As when Branson took a step back from Virgin Records to allow his staff to develop, this type of leader does not always lead from the front and are good at delegating responsibility among team members.

Striking the right balance between these styles of leadership is important as the dynamics of an organisation will require different approaches at various times of its growth period. The charismatic/transformational leadership style is needed to ensure the organisation grows according to its vision and maintains a strategy that is relevant and appropriate for its goals. The authoritarian/transactional leadership approach on the other hand is necessary to ensure that routine work is done reliably and complements the visionary and strategic aspects of the organisation.

Styles and approaches aside, it is important to note what one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time has to say on leadership. Branson states:

“What leadership boils down to is people. Whatever your style, whatever your method, you need to believe in yourself, your ideas and your staff. Nobody can be successful alone – and you cannot be a great leader without great people to lead.”

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