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  • Thomas Thurston

The Steve Jobs Excuse

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

Steve Jobs wasn’t known to be a fan of gutless whining. That’s why I imagine he’d be rolling in his grave if he heard something I hear all the time.  I call it the “Steve Jobs Excuse.”

It goes something like this… let’s say you’re a manager in a corporation.  You’re frustrated with your company.  You wish it could be more innovative but it seems too slow, too bureaucratic, too political, too inbred or too complacent to make the bold changes you wish it would.  You find yourself throwing your hands up in the air (or leaning over your drink at happy hour) saying something like “there’s no way we’ll innovate and grow with our current leadership.  What it takes is the rare CEO with the mental agility to balance the core business with visionary new growth.  We just don’t have that.  None of our leaders are innovators.  Nothing can help us, were doomed [or something more colorful].  It takes someone like Steve Jobs to turn our organization around and I don’t see that happening here anytime soon.”

I appreciate how demoralizing it can be in a company struggling to innovate.  Truly.  I also have the utmost respect for Steve’s talents and accomplishments.  Having disclaimed those sentiments… stop being such a wuss.

Yes, companies can be slow, bureaucratic, political, inbred and complacent.  Yes, sometimes they wouldn’t know innovation if it hit them between the eyes.  Yes, leaders can be dreadfully incompetent, cowardly and even harmful when it comes to the challenges of growth.  My point is – as long as they’re paying your bills – you owe them a duty not to give up.  More importantly, you owe yourself a duty not to give up.  Don’t quit.  Never accept innovation and growth as futile just because your leaders are too stupid to make it happen.  It’s your job to charge the hill no matter how many times you get shot and roll back down.  If you don’t – who will?  The fate of your company and the communities that depend on it are in your hands.  Failure is not an option.

Circling back to the Steve Jobs Excuse, don’t give in to a rescue fantasy.  You’re better than that.  You’re not a princess (that is… unless you actually are) in a castle waiting to be saved by a handsome knight.  You’re no hooker with a heart of gold hanging around Sunset Boulevard to get snatched up by Richard Gere to live in the Hamptons.  Don’t assume some mythic CEO is your only hope.  That’s defeatist thinking.

Look… sometimes horrible leaders can, and do, kill perfectly good companies.  But keep in mind, literally thousands of great companies have had inspirational, innovative growth without Steve.  There have also been countless businesses, big and small, with visionary leaders that crashed and burned.  All kinds of companies have risen and fallen with all kinds of leadership.  Just beware of the hindsight bias. It’s also dangerous to succumb to the fundamental attribution error – a tendency for people to over-emphasize personality-based explanations while under-emphasizing the role of situational influences.  Don’t stop trying to be part of the solution and refuse to be part of the problem. Progress can only hope to begin when you stop waiting for someone else to save the day.

I know there can be career risk in “fighting the good fight” innovation-wise when you have poor leadership.  I know it can be thankless, frustrating and… just plain maddening.  Still, don’t give in to futility.  Don’t let the dark side of the Force win.  Great change is rarely easy.  That’s why your company needs you to be bold, persistent, creative and to never give up. In the words of Martin Luther King, “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”  Don’t succumb to the Steve Jobs Excuse – my guess is he wouldn’t tolerate it either.


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