Reminder: To be like Steve Jobs, you need to actually be the boss

By Sarah Lacy , written on November 23, 2012

From The News Desk

The recent IPOs of Groupon, Zynga, and Facebook have offered staunch reminders on why precious few founders wind up staying CEOs -- particularly as a company goes from idea to massive public company with fickle shareholders and mopey employees.

The leaders of many of these companies are -- in theory-- protected from the Yahoo-like hell of activist shareholders and CEO oustings thanks to carefully constructed classes of stock that mean they can't be voted out. But the toll of being public has no doubt affected them nonetheless.

A recent conversation I had with the CEO of a newly public company offered a sharp reminder of why all the pain is worth it, at least to him. The recent high profile departures of Scott Forstall from Apple and Steven Sinofsky from Microsoft had a lot in common, as our own Kevin Kelleher pointed out. Both were considered brilliant but also flawed, divisive, and polarizing. Both were relentlessly product focused. And that can be a pain in the ass for someone who has to rationalize product vision into profits and losses. Both were also frequently described with that ultimate compliment in the tech world: Jobsian.

But here's the problem: Corporate companies don't really let you be Jobsian unless you are the boss. You can only be a total pain in the ass in the name of the greater good of your mission when you are guy who gets to decide who stays and goes.

It's not a surprise that the handful of product-oriented tech founders who have stayed CEOs throughout their companies' journeys are the kinds of people who probably would have been fired if they reported to a Steve Ballmer-like boss. Can you imagine Jeff Bezos still working at Amazon if he had to play nice with a superior? It's hard to imagine him "selling" a non-product oriented CEO on Amazon Web Services back in the day or even the Kindle. Can you imagine a Ray Lane or any other past presumed Larry Ellison successor putting up with Ellison's late, maybe-showing-up-to-a-demo-maybe-not mercurial ways?

You can argue-- as Kevin and others have-- that Apple and Microsoft needed the "mess" created by these brilliant, difficult individuals who challenge authority and create fights and resentments. But clearly someone in charge disagreed. Point being, when you're the boss, you get to create your own mess. When you're not, you're creating a mess in someone else's house.

To wit: Even Steve Jobs acted like Steve Jobs in the 1980s. And guess what? He wasn't the CEO and he got fired.

That's why founders who are truly driven by their mission will go through hell before they give up that corner office.