Innovation Blog

The Devil Wears Prada — but  Innovators Win Oscars:  Charisma, Leadership and Innovation

By Shlomo Maital        Steve Jobs again took center stage on Jan. 27, announcing Apple’s $499 iPad.  His performance, as seen on YouTube, was theatrical, worthy of an Oscar.   Bouncing around the stage, effusing superlatives for a product whose innovativeness is minimal  (“phenomenal, an incredible experience!   a dream to type on!”…”),  Jobs’ hysteria raised a question in my mind.

     What in the world is he up to?  Is it all about him, Steve Jobs?  Has ego captured Steve Jobs, as Allied forces captured the beaches of Normandy in 1944?  Does his overpriced iPad enable us to do things easily that we do not really need to do at all?

     According to Harvard Business School Professor John Kao, a leadership guru, “Apple represents the ‘auteur model of innovation’.  There is a tight connection between the personality of the project leader and what is created.” [1]   Kao cites movies as a metaphor — Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” or Cameron’s “Avatar”, both bearing the powerful stamp of the director.   

     With due respect to Kao, I think he errs.  Movies are a team effort.  So is iPad.  Here is my defense of Steve Jobs’ behavior. 

     In my Dec. 20, 2009 blog,  “Avatar and Titanic: Innovation 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — James Cameron and Robert Ballard”,  I noted the Jekyll & Hyde schizophrenic quality of large-scale innovators (like Cameron, who raised $400 m. to make Avatar) and Ballard (who constantly raises funds to support his expensive exploration vessel and laboratory).  Cameron and Ballard are willing to act like egomaniacs, make extravagant claims, excite their audience on TV and get them to whip out their checkbooks.  This is Mr. Hyde.  He is essential to large-scale innovations.  He is King of over-the-top charisma.

     But when they work behind the scenes, with their team, they are Dr. Jekyll — amiable, modest team players, willing to listen to wild ideas, able to attract creative people and keep them happy.  He is the Prince of collaboration, sharing, understatement.    Mr Hyde is equally essential.  And Jekyll & Hyde must co-exist, without one dominating the other.  This is very difficult, and few leaders can manage to excel in both roles. 

     Steve Jobs is great at both.  He can win an Oscar on stage, and wins smiles  and super-creativity backstage.  Implementing “Think Different!” takes more than one Steve Jobs.

      But there is one major caveat.  The histrionics of innovation leaders on-stage can be ruinous, if these leaders insist of surrounding themselves with the trappings of their position: sumptuous offices,  $10,000 wastebaskets, and so on.  In their Harvard Business School study,  “The Devil Wears Prada?  Effects of Exposure to Luxury Goods on Cognition and Decision Making”,   Roy Chua and Xi Zou report that “…mere exposure to luxury goods increasesindividuals’ propensity to prioritize self-interests over others’ interests, influencing the decisions they make.”  

     In other words:  As an innovation leader, go ahead and win that Oscar on stage, to create buzz for your product.  But if you surround yourself with luxury, sooner or later it will corrupt you, and you will begin to believe your own hype.  

     The Devil wears Prada.  Innovators pitch, hype and exaggerate, but wear jeans and drive Fords and give maximum credit to their team-mates.

[1] Quoted in Steve Lohr, “At Apple, Innovation with a Personal Twist”, IHT Monday Feb. 1, 2010, p. 15.