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Saskia Miller

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Steve Jobs and Leadership: Will His Legacy Continue?

Posted: 10/06/11 05:16 PM ET

What happens when a creation loses its creator? I'm referring, of course, to Steve Jobs and the Apple universe that many of us live in.

As news of Jobs' death came pouring in last night via text, tweet, iChat, email, and TV, people became sad. Very sad. Though few of us knew him personally, we felt close to him because his iPads are used by our grandmothers and his iPods have been in our pockets for years. We deeply understand the devices he has created because he has designed them to connect with us emotionally, and to give us pleasure and joy.

So naturally, Jobs' death leaves many with a sense of emptiness as we wonder what will come next: Will there ever be another life-changing Apple device? Are we destined to live in a poorly designed world of devices from now on? Was Jobs the only one with the magic touch?

The answers depend on whether Jobs as CEO was more like a genius artist, the kind who mines the depths of his soul for his next great inspiration and has assistants carry it out, or whether he was more like a great teacher, who encourages his students to think for themselves and to accomplish their own great ideas. There is no doubt that Jobs was an exceptional leader, but the successful continuation of his legacy hinges upon his actual leadership style.

Consider the brilliant 17th century Dutch painter Rembrandt: his paintings are characterized by extraordinary technique, but they also speak to the viewer on a much deeper level. They tell epic stories of life and death, of love and struggle, and at the same time offer intimate insight into the souls of their human subjects. The master painter was also well known for his workshop of apprentices, whom he trained carefully: the pupils would copy his work, brushstroke by brushstroke, in order to learn how to mimic the specific intricate play of light and color that made a true Rembrandt painting. There was no doubt that he had talented students -- arguments about whether some the paintings can be attributed to master or workshop continue to this day. Despite their abilities though, no Rembrandt pupil ever surpassed in fame Rembrandt himself. Maybe, in slavishly imitating their master, these artists lost touch with the vision that would have made their work powerful in its own right.

Now instead take a moment to remember your favorite college professor, teacher, mentor, or even boss: what and how did you learn from him or her? I'm willing to bet that your most important memory has nothing to do with rote memorization of a poem or multiplication table. While memorization may have been a part of the teaching process, it's more likely that your teacher offered you something much more important than a method of imitation: he or she gave you the opportunity to approach problems using your own creativity. He or she encouraged you to have the confidence to think for yourself, and to stray from the beaten path. This is not to say that your teacher had no hard knowledge or technique to impart to you -- she surely did. The difference is that her teaching - or leadership - style was a potent combination of knowledge-sharing and confidence-giving. She wanted to live on not in carbon copies of herself, but in the form of ideas and creations likely very different from her own, and yet no less impactful.

So back to Steve Jobs, creator of a company that has changed the way we think and feel about technology: what kind of leader was he, genius artist or great teacher? And what would each mean for us?

 

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