Steve Jobs and Al Davis: Bay Area Icons With Some Uncanny Links

Back in January of 1984, Apple introduced their Macintosh computer in a now historical ad during the 3rd quarter of Super Bowl XVIII.  The Macintosh of course would become the first of many transformative products for Steve Jobs and Apple.  One quarter later, Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders, would celebrate his team’s final Super Bowl victory under his leadership.  Twenty seven years later, they would die during the same week.

At first, the idea of comparing Steve Jobs and Al Davis would appear ludicrous, or at least sacrilegious to fans of Jobs.  A quick sampling of articles, obits and social media comments shows a clear difference between the two men.  Jobs has been roundly acclaimed as a visionary who radically transformed our daily life through products that were both useful and lovable.  A rare negative article or comment simply suggests that he has been excessively lionized.  Al Davis, on the other hand, has not been eulogized as positively.  Most articles, while grudgingly recognizing his contributions to pro football, still highlight his brash and offensive style.  Additionally, social media comments regarding his death are mixed, with some folks relieved that he will no longer control the Raiders.

The circumstances of their death are quite different as well.  Steve Jobs died at the top of his game, with Apple ascending as one of the most valuable and successful companies in history.  He remained actively involved till the end in Apple’s direction, receiving much credit for its recent success.  The iPhone4S, announced one day before his death, appears headed to record sales.  Al Davis died as a controversial figure, leading a struggling organization.  His Raiders, a dominant force from the mid-60’s through the mid-80’s, hadn’t logged a winning season in 10 years.  Their last Super Bowl victory occurred when he was a “mere” 54 years old.  At 82, many fans and pundits felt that he had lost his touch, holding on to power too long.

Despite these obvious differences, Steve Jobs and Al Davis shared many things in common.  Both were patriarchs of prominent organizations, leading these entities up until their death.  Both men were ambitious, driven leaders who pushed for greatness, victory and dominance.  They were also both known to be abrasive, difficult and demanding figures that expected blind loyalty.  And both men took on the established order, with Jobs attacking Microsoft and Davis attacking the NFL.

While Jobs contributions hardly need recounting, many people are unaware of the contributions that Davis made to pro sports.  He is considered one of the early coaching geniuses that created an aggressive offensive style that still influences many teams today.  Much as Jobs molded the image of Apple as a friendly company, Davis created an image of the Raiders as aggressive, nasty and powerful.  He was behind the selection of a pirate logo and silver and black color scheme.  These are iconic images in pro sports, much as the Apple logo and color scheme are in the world of technology.  On a more human level, Davis is also credited with hiring the first Black and Hispanic head coaches in the NFL.  He also recently appointed the first female CEO.

Another interesting area of comparison between Jobs and Davis involves corporate leadership and governance.  Both men exercised absolute authority and were involved in details and decisions atypical of a CEO or owner.  In the case of Al Davis, especially later in his career, this appeared to work poorly.  He was roundly criticized for poor personnel selection, feuding with star players, and an inability to retain head coaches.   He was thought by many to be a stubborn, eccentric old man, who couldn’t accept that his best leadership years had passed.

In the case of Steve Jobs, many will argue that his heavy handedness was a key factor in Apple’s success.  It is argued that in the world of technology, “you need someone with vision who can make the hard decisions.”  It has also been said that while many feared him within 1 Infinite Loop, he still brought out the best in them.  As a proponent of progressive management styles, I find myself pondering Apple’s success under Jobs.

I believe that Apple’s fantastic run under Steve Jobs reign is unusual and unlikely to be effectively emulated.  It is a rare combination of a brilliant leader, historical timing and that magic ingredient, luck.  More commonly, organizations led by dominant, autocratic figures become dysfunctional, taking on the characteristics of despotic regimes.  The lack of free speech, and stifling of ideas and criticism, results in a sclerotic organization, incapable of keeping pace with innovative rivals.  Forward thinking leaders would be best served by emulating Steve Jobs’ penchant for delivering great products that delighted his customer base.  Simply imitating his leadership methods would be the wrong lesson from his esteemed legacy.


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