Our Fickle Relationship with Leadership: Is RIM vs. Apple a Good Metaphor?

by julia.hanigsberg | March 2nd, 2012

I’ve been reflecting a lot about different leadership styles as I’ve been reading Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and observing the RIM leadership change and ongoing punditry about it. With the proviso that I’m no tech or business guru and I’m using these examples as metaphor (so don’t take them to be stock tips!) let’s take a look at how these two stories translate into leadership archetypes.

Steve Jobs is the poster child for iconoclastic, mercurial leaders. If only half of what is in Isaacson’s recent bio is true, working with him was grueling, filled with bullying, drama, tears and temper tantrums. But also exciting, creative, and episodically even empowering as he pushed individuals beyond what they could imagine they were capable of. Ousted from the apex of the company, Jobs’ odyssey through Pixar and NeXT ultimately brings him back to rescue Apple from its descent into ordinariness. This is the Harry Potter model of leadership: the chosen one, different and special from birth, with abilities virtually super human, able to do things ordinary humans can barely aspire to.

Contrast RIM: co-chief executives have been at the helm, the technology has always felt like it was about being secure and functional rather than dazzling. As critique upon critique mounted (and the company’s market share fell) the company responded with incremental changes to the product and its marketing, tinkered with its corporate governance (hardly sexy), and eventually allowed its co-CEOs to plan a succession on their timing; the new leader is a trusted insider, low on charisma, no revolutions in sight. Even installing a fabulous woman as the chair of the RIM Board – a tectonic shift if you contrast the all male Board of Facebook – didn’t generate much media love. The drama of the rescue or the resurrection is absent from the RIM leadership story. The company plugs away and we wait. All the while Apple’s market cap is through the roof and it sits on more cash than the USA.

I don’t think I’m ever going to be the heroic mercurial leader. And that’s not because I’m especially humble or altruistic (and no one who watched Balsillie vs. NHL would accuse him of low-ego!). I’m a strong believer in the adage that all of us are stronger, smarter and better than any of us and I’m reliant on the experience and expertise my team brings to the work we do together. I lead by knitting together and highlighting opportunities for collaboration and executing values-driven objectives. As a great leader said, “There is no try, only do” (that would be Yoda).

Different environments lend themselves to, or have become accustomed to, one or the other style of leadership. Arguably elected politics relies on a kind of ego-driven competitive leadership that may not appeal to everyone and could be one piece of the puzzle of why women and other underrepresented groups have been slow to find their place in our parliaments. Toronto civic activist Dave Meslin has a great critique of local politics using the metaphor of the one with the lightening bolt on his forehead: see his TedxToronto talk here.

Shakespeare’s adage “To thine own self be true” is critical to authentic leadership. The world needs heroes but it also needs all kinds of other leaders.

So this is my advice: read about different leaders, their successes and failures, as part of your journey to discover and enhance the leader in you. It’s not about dichotomies: beg, borrow and steal the best leadership traits from those who succeed around you. Learn and be influenced by others from Steve Jobs to Tony Hsieh to Tina Fey to Martha Piper to Craig Kielburger to Andrea Jung to Kevin W. Williams to David Onley to Sheldon Levy to Sheryl Sandberg…the list of potential role models is long! Embrace your authentic leadership style, talk about it and live it.

Don’t get caught up in heroics—be the leader you are and who your world needs you to be.

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