As Apple's stock fell on the news of Steve Jobs' medical leave, media commentary focused on Jobs' importance to Apple, and rightly so. Apple has been tremendously successful and now ranks as one of the most valuable companies in technology — and for that matter, in the stock market overall. Its products dominate, if not always in sales then at least in the discussion of categories ranging from mobile phones to tablet computers. Jobs' enormous visibility, and the tight connection between him and the company, make him unique as a CEO in American business. It's easy to forget that Apple was once written off as being an irrelevant footnote in the computer industry, and that Jobs himself once lost his job there.
The fact that Jobs came back and took Apple to new heights makes him a fascinating study in power. I take three lessons away from it. The first is the most inspiring: it's that power can result from sheer drive, persistence, resilience, and the ability to tolerate conflict. Does anyone remember the first mobile device, the Newton? It was a big failure. For that matter, how did the Lisa, another nonstarter, get resurrected as the Macintosh? Jobs persisted, sticking with his same focus on the user interface, his fundamental vision of ease of use and cool design, but also learned from the setbacks. Note that when he left Apple he was a rich man — he'd been wealthy by most people's definition of wealth for decades. But he didn't retire to the beach or even to the world of nonprofits. He founded Next Computer. Then, with the sale of it to Apple, he returned to unseat Gil Amelio, the National Semiconductor veteran who had taken the helm at Apple. Forget all that and just look at how he has kept going through his health crises; this is a man who is hard to slow down.
The next lesson to be learned is that power can come through the projection of an image of strength that may not yet be the reality. For devices such as computers or cell phones to be of great value to users, developers have to be interested in writing application software. But no one is going to write software for a product they perceive as going nowhere. They only want to develop applications for hot products. Jobs' ability to create a sense of inevitability about Apple's products is legendary. Even those who accuse him of having a "reality distortion field" manage to find themselves talking about his devices. Even when Apple was sort of a footnote to the computer industry, he was able to get enormous media and industry press. Unfortunately for Apple's shareholders today, the same sense of can't-do-without-it also attached to Jobs himself. Even though no one could call his reputation spotless — stock options issues swirled around him, he could be hot-tempered, and he's been blamed for not disclosing material information about his health — he is seen as an industry visionary and the clearly-defined voice and soul of Apple.
This brings us to the third lesson: that likeability is not a prerequisite to power. While being liked can increase your influence, the equation works more reliably the other way around: being powerful will get you liked. As my colleague Robert Sutton has pointed out, Jobs' management style leaves much to be desired. One person in management told me that Jobs fired him one day. (At Apple this is apparently called "being Steved.") As he was cleaning out his office later that day, Jobs came by and asked him what he was doing. "Preparing to leave," was the reply. "Oh," said Jobs, "I didn't really mean it, I was just upset. You're rehired." Mercurial, demanding, occasionally demeaning—why do people put up with such behavior? Because Apple is a success, and we love to bask in reflected glory, because Apple's stock price is going up and there are material rewards, and because being treated badly by an icon is at least being noticed by that rock star.
No, Steve Jobs' management style is not likely to be touted in most leadership books, but just as we can all learn from his qualities as a product visionary, we can take lessons from his remarkable ability to have his way, and therefore make those visions reality. If doing your job well depends on accruing and wielding personal power, there are few careers more worthy of study than Steve Jobs'.