Steve Jobs – Transformational Leader or Transactional?

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What made Apple the number one brand in the smartphones industry? Maybe Steve Jobs leadership style? How would you describe him – charismatic, autocratic, transformational, or transactional leader? Read this paper to learn more about Steve Jobs leadership theory.

Executive Summary

The success or failure of any organisation or business depends solely on leadership. Leaders have been given the mandate of steering their organisations towards the direction, which they perceive can bring the best results. However, not all leaders have been able to identify this direction. Such failing leaders adopt headship models that are counterproductive to their organisations. Any model that does not recognise the key role of all stakeholders, including workers, cannot yield success to the organisation. Leaders need to demonstrate expertise while selecting leadership approaches to steer their organisations. Steve Jobs, whose leadership forms the basis of this paper, is one of such leaders whom many people have admired based on the way he transformed Apple Incorporation from a failing company into a global giant. To prove this claim, this paper provides a brief background of Steve Jobs. It will also evaluate his leadership regarding the transformational leadership hypothesis and the trait theory. Lastly, given the chance to steer Apple, Inc., the paper shows how I could have led differently to attain excellent results.


Leadership is one of the most ancient spheres of management. Many theories have been developed to explain the nature and conduct of an effective leader. Most of these theories have not lived up to people or organisations’ expectations. Thus, the situation has prompted scholars to continue researching on the most effective type of leadership. Nonetheless, various individuals have provided great leadership that the world has lived to admire. Steve Jobs, the former CEO of Apple Inc., not only transformed the information technology industry but also the leadership industry. Using relevant theories and models, this paper will evaluate the leadership of Steve Jobs. It will further suggest what I would have done differently if I were in Steve Jobs’ position.

Steve Jobs & Apple Background

Steve Jobs was born to Joanne Simpson and Abdulfattah Jandali in the town of San Francisco in February 1995. However, he was later adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs, although Steve Jobs did not discover this information until he became an adult. He was raised in California. As a young man, he already showed a deep interest in electronics as early as when he was in high school. He met Steve Wozniak in 1969 who introduced him to electronics. Jobs quit college and spent most of the early 1970s travelling to India in search of spiritual illumination. When he came back to California, he continued working with Wozniak where the two started working on certain blue boxes that could allow long-distance communication. Later, in 1976, they expanded their business and began designing computers under the business name Apple Computer. Jobs observed that clients were interested in the computer circuit board, which inspired him to establish Apple Computer with Wozniak (Isaacson 2011).

In the initial years of the business, they made the products in a garage and marketed them to the surrounding computer shops. Wozniak successfully designed the Apple II, which was a great innovation. Thus, the two business partners dedicated their time to get sponsors who could finance their business and/or help them in marketing the product. Mike Markkula agreed to invest $250,000. He also promised to ensure that the company was listed in the Fortune 500 journal. The company soon began causing a revolution in the PC industry. By 1980, the company had surpassed the $200million mark (Isaacson 2011).

Nonetheless, despite the success of the Apple Computer, young Jobs was emotional. He never hesitated on an outburst. For instance, his disagreement with Wozniak went to the extent of destroying their good relationship. His denial of her daughter and failure to offer paternal support left her (daughter) to languish in poverty. He did not earn the trust of the management board. Hence, he failed to manage the Apple II business effectively. He desired to design his product that Wozniak would have no contribution. At this particular time, he had a project to work on. He chose the name Lisa as a way of ridiculing his daughter whom he ignored. The board found him unpredictable and hence fired him from the project. He’s resorted to avenge by taking over the Macintosh project to counter the sales of Lisa project. He also decided to employ John Sculley with the intent of making him his puppet. The Macintosh made good sales, although the products were of low quality when compared to those that were made in the Lisa project. Apple Computer was going through problems due to these conflicts. The only project that was sustaining the company was Apple II. Wozniak publicly quit the company. Meanwhile, Jobs was organising a coup to take over the company. To achieve this goal, he organised Scullery to travel to China. However, Scullery soon discovered his plans, flew back, and reported the matter to the company’s management board. In unison, the Board of Directors sacked him from the company.

From his experience in Apple Computer, Jobs sought ways to utilise his energy. He established NeXT as another computer company, although it was unproductive because it lacked important software. Noticing the decline of NeXT, Jobs bought another company known as ‘The Graphics Group’. This company dealt with the production of computer animations. It operated under the name Pixar. It had formed an agreement to work on Toy Story. Jobs realised a dominant player in the industry and decided that he would use it to strengthen Pixar. He made Pixar publicly-traded company after the Toy Story was launched. His plan was effective since it performed impressively in Wall Street. Jobs now owned about $1.5billion in the company. When Pixar later merged with Walt Disney, he became the prime shareholder.

Meanwhile, Apple Computer was experiencing software challenges. The company’s Mac OS was now competing with other operating systems such as Windows 95. In an attempt to get better software, the company resorted to buying NeXTSTEP, which was Jobs’ software. After an agreement, NeXT was bought at a value of $400million. It also saw the return of Steve Jobs back to his company. The company was still performing poorly. The management arm of the company was uncomfortable with the then CEO, Gil Amelio. Jobs planned a successful takeover, which saw him become the interim CEO. To gain the confidence of the Board of Directors, Jobs introduced a campaigning project under the motto Think Different. The company started registering profits. Under the watch of Jobs, another product by the name iMac was launched. It revolutionised the industry. More innovative products were launched such as iBooks, as well as Apple notebook. Since he impressed the Board of Directors, he was made the official CEO of Apple Computer in 2000 (Isaacson, 2012).

Steve Jobs drafted a digital hub plan, which began the introduction of the iPod that set an impetus of Apple’s control of consumer electronics. iPod received an unexpected high demand from consumers. It was soon followed by iTunes in 2003. The company experienced steady growth, following the introduction of digital products. However, the major change was witnessed in 2007. Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone that indeed is still admired by many stakeholders and consumers in the industry. The move from PC and prosperity in consumer electronics inspired Jobs to rename the company like Apple Inc. Meanwhile, he was struggling with cancer since 2003. This situation hampered him to proceed with leading at Apple Inc., as he had to resign in 2011 because of health problems. At the time of his death in October 2011, he had revived a collapsing company and made it a dominant competitor in the consumer electronics industry (Isaacson, 2012).

Steve Jobs & Leadership Theories

Steve Jobs’ form of leadership remains an inspiration to this day. He ensured that the regulations, goals, and visions of the company were attained. Essentially, he exhibited various characters of a leader. Before quitting the Apple Computer Company, he emotionally made erroneous moves. Nonetheless, when he returned to Apple Computer Company, he was transformed. He could balance not only his emotions but also those of his employees for the benefit of the company. One would say that Steve Jobs changed to a transformational leader. Such a leadership model worked for him flawlessly.

Hughes and Curphy (2014) assert that transformational leaders are visionary. They inspire their employees towards achieving the set goals. They use charisma to motivate employees while at the same time using icons or slogans to keep their employees focused on achieving a particular goal. After Gil Amelio was fired following a series of poor performance instances, the first step that Jobs took after assuming the position of an interim CEO was to reinstate confidence among employees. He introduced an innovative marketing plan under the motto ‘Think Different’, which was met to motivate consumers and employees. His idea worked well. Within six months after assuming his office, the company was accounting for profits. Furthermore, he prepared a digital hub strategy that provided a roadmap that all employees could refer to as they proceeded with their tasks.

According to Rowold (2014), a transformational leader is self-reliant. Jobs identified and exploited all available opportunities by adjusting the organisation to fit the opportunity. After establishing the company’s vision, he created trust among his workers to focus on accomplishing the eminent business opportunity. From the onset, when Jobs saw Apple II that could transform the IT industry, he decided to exploit the available opportunity by looking for interested investors whom he successfully found. As earlier mentioned, Mike Markkula supported the idea with $250,000. A few months later, Apple had gone ahead of the rest in the PC industry (Steinwart & Ziegler 2014).

A transformational leader gets the right team that will help him or her to accomplish the vision and objectives of the organisation. For instance, if a manager wants to introduce an innovative programme in an organisation, he or she should get individuals who he or she knows are best qualified to market the programme. Such individuals can offer proper training with regards to the product and then develop evaluation systems followed by the implementation of the programme. Although critics have noted that Jobs did not maintain cordial rapport with most of his employees, he chose the most talented individual to help in achieving the goals of Apple Inc. He had a zeal for innovation. He appreciated the efforts of his team whenever they (efforts) successfully worked on an innovative project. He often reiterated that innovation had little to do with money but the team (Steinwart & Ziegler 2014).

Under the trait theory of leadership, Jobs exhibited several traits. His form of leadership portrayed a blend of eccentric and distasteful traits. Scholars of trait theory assert that the most acceptable traits of a leader include extraversion, perfectionism, intelligibility, and minimal neuroticism. Although his affability is in doubt, he was highly confident. He was never hesitant to share his mind. He often preferred face-to-face communication. He was meticulous and always determined to achieve his goals. On the part of the transparency that is also questionable, he sometimes executed the ideas of others and took their credits.

Commentators have declared emotional intelligence another effective skill of leadership. A leader should be in the position to understand his feelings and those of his or her employees. He or should have a plan of using them (workers) to get positive results in the company. In the earlier years of Jobs at Apple Computer Company, when he was in charge of the Apple II project, the management board considered him too temperamental to be discreet. Indeed, the way he handled his differences with Wozniak, his long time business partner together with his vengeful tendencies and plans to overthrow the then leader would be termed as wrong emotions that hampered the performance of Apple Computer Company. He also once broke into tears publicly when he thought that he was being unappreciated. Despite Jobs’ low sides, he was self-confident.

Jobs also exercised the behavioural leadership model, which reveals how individuals behave while in leadership positions. The behaviours are grouped into several categories. First, some leaders show more care for the task, products, and how to achieve the company’s goals. Secondly, another group of leaders prioritise the employees over the products and tasks. Thirdly, other leaders are good at giving directions and playing the supervisory role. Moreover, another category of leaders prefers to participate in decision-making processes with their followers. Jobs was a transactional leader since he had the enthusiasm to participate in almost every activity in the company. He solved problems as soon as they arose. According to Hughes and Curphy (2014), he did not insult employees, even though they were prone to errors.

Recommendations on Steve Jobs Leadership Style

Jobs was a charismatic and transactional leader who was motivated by various traits some of which were good while others were repulsive. The combination of charismatic and transactional leadership helped him to earn employee trust. He kept all his workers motivated towards achieving Apple Company’s goals. Despite his initial dismissal because of his volatility, his return saved the company from crumbling. The period that he spent outside Apple Inc. gave him time to reflect and learn from his mistakes. He had a cruel personality. He maintained a bad rapport with his biological parents. He also denied her daughter Lisa. Despite his financial stability, he never supported her. Possibly, one would claim that the feeling of rejection from his biological parents, whom he only discovered at the age of 27 years, influenced his personality. His negative emotions affected his initial performance at Apple Inc. before being fired, although his performance was impressive after his return, his relationship with workers was barely cordial (Isaacson 2011).

Given the same position as Steve Jobs in Apple Inc., I would follow his footsteps. However, I would improve on emotional intelligence. I would apply all principles of transformational leadership, exploit every available opportunity I identify, encourage innovation and creativity among employees, and keep them motivated. Furthermore, I would perfect on the facets of emotional intelligence, which comprise personal consciousness, compassion, enthusiasm, self-control, and maintaining a cordial relationship with workers, consumers, and other stakeholders. Personal consciousness will enable me to know my fortes and weaknesses so that I can improve where I should and seek help where I cannot proceed as an individual. It would also help me to control my emotions when workers will further help me to maintain an affable relationship with employees (Lussier & Achua 2015).

Rathi (2014) asserts that self-motivation is also essential for effective leadership because one is best placed to develop goals and convince others to work towards their (goals) achievement. Compassion is also another key facet of emotional intelligence that I would apply whenever the need arises. It enables a leader to understand the situation of an employee while at the same time promoting a friendly atmosphere in a team. Socialising with employees creates a feeling of recognition in the company. It ignites momentum for hard work. If I were made the CEO of Apple Inc. in place of Steve Jobs, I would create a friendly organisational culture where the workers do not feel that they are simply tools to achieve the goals of the company. I would instil the feeling that they are part of a team that seeks to make the world a better place through innovation and creativity. I would provide an equal platform for employees to share their ideas and give credit to anyone who does a stunning job (Rathi 2014).


Using leadership theories, I have established that Steve Jobs was a transformational and transactional leader who applied various traits in the management of Apple Inc. His technique was effective in ensuring that the goals and visions of the organisation were accomplished. Nevertheless, he was considered temperamental. This paper has associated this trait with his background of not growing up with his biological parents. Learning from his mistakes, if I were the CEO of Apple Inc., I would strive to incorporate the features of emotional intelligence in my leadership. He is an icon of modern leadership that should inspire current leaders, student leadership, as well as critical thinkers.


Hughes, L & Curphy, G 2014, Leadership: Enhancing the Lessons of Experience, McGraw-Hill Publ. Comp., New York, NY.

Isaacson, W 2011, Steve Jobs, Simon and Schuster, New York, NY.

Isaacson, W 2012, ‘The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs’, Harvard Business Review, vol. 90 no. 4, pp. 92-102.

Lussier, R & Achua, C 2015, Leadership: Theory, Application, & Skill Development, Cengage Learning, Massachusetts, MA.

Rathi, N 2014, ‘Impact of Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Labour on Organisational Outcomes in Service Organisations: A Conceptual Model’, South Asian Journal of Management, vol. 21 no. 4, pp. 54-71.

Rowold, J 2014, ‘Instrumental leadership: Extending the transformational-transactional leadership paradigm’, Zeitschrift für Personalforschung, vol. 28 no. 3, pp. 367-390.

Steinwart, C & Ziegler, A 2014, ‘Remembering Apple CEO Steve Jobs as a “Transformational Leader”: Implications for Pedagogy’, Journal of Leadership Education, vol. 13 no. 2, pp. 52-66.

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