Steve Jobs vs. Herb Kelleher – Hero Worship vs. Servant Leadership

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Steve Jobs, Herb Kelleher, Steve Wozniak, Tim Cook, Colleen Barrett, Gary Kelly
Top Row: Steve Jobs, Herb Kelleher; Bottom Row: Steve Wozniak, Tim Cook, Colleen Barrett, Gary Kelly

I am a fan of many Apple products and believe Steve Jobs played a critical role in Apple’s success. However, following his passing, there were many people who referred to him as a great leader. He was – if you refer to technology and innovation. However, if you refer to people or organizational leadership, I believe there are better examples.

The synonymous association of Steve Jobs with Apple’s success disturbs me as a classic example of hero worship in business. More important, I fear the message all this hero worship sends to our next generation of leaders. I want to ensure our young leaders do not confuse hero worship with great leadership.

What is Hero Worship?

Hero worship in business refers to the attribution of organizational success to a single individual. Often, this means exaggerating the results of that person. As a result, an individual becomes the face of an entire company and the organization’s success or failure rests upon their shoulders.

The Problem with Hero Worship

There are many problems with hero worship in leadership, including:

1. Implies the leader alone is responsible for the success. There is little or no sharing of the success with the many people that made it possible. Industry experts know other individuals played a critical role in Apple’s success, especially Steve Wozniak. However, popular culture sees Steve Jobs as the lone icon atop the company.

2. Lacks sustainability. Without a successor at least equal in stature, accomplishment and fame, success associated to that leader is rarely sustained. Insiders know Tim Cook, Job’s successor, is an outstanding executive in his own right. However, the limelights consumed by Jobs left little awareness of Mr. Cook’s contributions and capabilities.

3. Singular Focus: Most hero worship praises an individual for a select few attributes. In Jobs case, I’d suggest this was creativity, innovation and technology. However, he was not a man I would consider exemplary in other attributes, such as character or people leadership.

The Benefits of Servant Leadership

There are plenty of resources to cover the extensive benefits of servant leadership. In contrast specifically to hero worship though, the benefits of servant leadership include:

1. Builds up the organization: Servant leaders place the success of the organization, first. This often means the leader does not get celebrity status or their own paparazzi. However, the organization as a whole is recognized as a success. This is seen in Southwest Airlines frequent recognition as the leader of their industry and the comparably infrequent features of Herb Kelleher.

2. Humbly shares success: When recognition does come to the leader, the first comment is often in reference to the people who really delivered the success – the front line workers. Herb Kelleher often referred to the critical role unions played in the company’s success. In fact, he was known to join the baggage handlers on holidays – showing up to help them and show his support.

3. Prioritizes sustainability: Sustainability is a critical attribute for servant leaders. In Kelleher and Southwest this was reflected in Herb’s passing the baton to Colleen Barrett, his long time partner and Gary Kelly. Neither Colleen nor Gary were publicity hounds, but they knew The Southwest way and were well understood as competent successors.

Lesson For Next Generation Leaders

I hope we continue to study Mr. Jobs as an outstanding example of innovation and an inspirational success to many in the creative and technology fields. He was a great success by these and other standards. However, if you seek to practice sustainable success that builds your people up and seeks to deliver results to both the bottom lines of your company as well as broader benefits to your community, please seek out what it means to serve as you lead.

Question: Do you agree or disagree? I welcome the feedback.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]


Picture of Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

5 thoughts on “Steve Jobs vs. Herb Kelleher – Hero Worship vs. Servant Leadership”

  1. Diff leaders in diff industries, different products and services. You should not underestimate or dismiss Steve’s much needed decisiveness, perhaps a bit of dictatorship, in getting and keeping Apple focused and leading it to greatness. In his book, he often credits the incredible talent around him including in his interview with Bill Gates. Steve surrounds himself with top talent versus what we often see in corporate companies: top politicians. He was narcissistic; however he, like Herb Kelleher, made one of the smoothest transition I have seen in my lifetime where growth continued beyond his legacy. That speaks volumes to his leadership, as well as Herb’s. Rather than speak in either/or, both men exercised unparalleled leadership during their lifetime.

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful response! There were definitely many differences in the environments these two leaders operated. Mr. Jobs was a success by many people’s standards and his legacy will continue to teach us much for years to come. Thanks again for sharing.

  2. Great post, Ben. I stumbled on it while doing my own Jobs/Kelleher comparison for another piece. You hit the nail on the head. Jobs was a visionary leader. His career was about building transformational products. Herb is even more visionary. His career was about transforming people.

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