Jonathan Ive´s departure from Apple, after more than 20 years, marks the end of a cycle for the most popular company in recent history. Ive, who designed everything from the Imac to the more recent airpods, announced his departure from Apple in order to found his own design studio: LoveFrom.His departure shouldn’t be read as an isolated event, instead it speaks of the significant changes taking place inside the corporation.
I recently had the good fortune of meeting Ken Segall, who was, for 20 years, creative director for Apple and who led the famous ad campaign Think Different, and James Hardy, former head of Europe for Alibaba, the E-commerce giant. We had the chance to discuss, over some great food and wine, both Jack Ma’s and Steve Jobs’s leadership styles.
Jobs´s eccentric personality has been the theme of many documentaries, films and Walter Isaacson´s highly acclaimed biography. Most of these representations have centered around Jobs´s reputation for being a ruthless leader. One that is known for his harsh treatment of employees, at times even crossing the line into cruelty. It overlooks, I believe, crucial aspects of his leadership style.
Detail-oriented Jobs, pragmatic Ma
Much has been said about the attention to detail present in Apple´s products. Even on those parts which are not visible to the end user, the relentless focus on every aesthetic aspect is impeccable. Such detail-oriented approach came from Jobs himself, who has been labeled as a control freak by many of his previous colleagues.
On the other side, Jack Ma is known for his pragmatism: he values functionality above all, not aesthetics. A quick look at Alibaba´s website is enough to realize that design and visual appearance do not rank highly in Ma´s to-do lists. He is more focused on setting the vision and executing flawlessly.
Ma the humble, Jobs the explosive one
Even though Ma ranks as one of the wealthiest people on earth, he has not forgotten his humble beginnings. His interviews denote his humble and serene leadership style, something Hardy himself corroborates, but also highlighting his relentless resolve and will to make things happen. Although some may think of such attitudes as ‘soft’, it has not stopped Alibaba from achieving extraordinary results.
On the other side, Jobs has been portrayed in movies as arrogant and explosive. Nevertheless –and this has been overlooked by such representations– his intense and explosive personality blended with the traits of a truly inspirational leader. These tensions between harsh and kind, dominant and inspiring, ruthless controller and nurturer of creative flourishing allowed him to bring out the best from his employees. He drove them past their limits, true, but he also brought out the best out of them. Without such complex paradoxes and tensions exerted by Jobs, it’s probable that the world would stand today without the benefit that Apple revolutionary products has created.
Contrasting Jobs’s and Ma’s leadership styles leaves me with a conclusion: there is no sure-fire formula regarding leadership styles, but there are some commonalities to be found amongst these world-class business leaders. Both Segall and Hardy agree that Jobs and Ma share the following leadership traits: vision, self-belief, strategic thinking, communication and ability to motivate their employees.
Alibaba and Apple have both proven to be extraordinary companies, with high-performing standards and results. They have reached these levels through the guidance of leaders who, although they share leadership traits, went about their business in different manners.
Many believe Apple is on a downward spiral. They claim that after Steve Jobs´s passing it hasn’t been able to rise up to the task. For them, Ive´s departure is proof of it. I disagree; two thirds of Apple’s value has been created after Steve’s death. I believe that Ive´s departure is not a sign of failure but rather a sign of reinvention, of evolution. Apple has been quietly –and intelligently– integrating services to its portfolio, complementing its world class products (a category which they have undoubtedly led for many years). Last quarter alone, services related revenue was 11.5Billion Dollars. In that sense, parting ways with Johny Ive makes sense (both for Ive and Apple).
A leader’s true worth is not dictated by how well the company performed on his command, but rather on how strong it remains years after his departure. It seems Jobs accomplished this. Apple is far from dead, it’s just entering a new stage.