Steve Jobs & The Routinization of Charisma

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, died this week. I didn’t know him and yet his death moved me deeply. It shook me awake. When I woke up sad this morning I did the only thing I know how to do, I thought about Steve Jobs and his passing sociologically.

Of all the things you could say about Steve Jobs, without a doubt, one of them was that he was a great charismatic leader. During his presentations his words, energy, and style could create a “reality distortion field” that would make mundane aspects of his products sound revolutionary. His spirit worked almost like a Jedi mind trick telling reporters what they were to write in their reviews. His charisma seemed superhuman.

A charismatic authority figure is one of three styles of authority that Max Weber talked about. Authority can be thought of as the use of power that is perceived as legitimate. Some statuses have power simply because of tradition (e.g. parents have power over children). Other statuses have power because they have been “routinized” or built in the structure of social institutions. Weber calls this type of authority rational-legal authority and the president of the United States is a good example of this type.

Charismatic authority can be thought of as the the use of power that is legitimized by the exemplary characteristics of a person or by their accomplishments that inspire others to follow or be loyal to them. Steve Jobs accomplishments have gained him a rabid fan base; to the point that Apple fans are oft referred to as members of the “Cult of Mac”. It was because of who Jobs is (or at least how he was perceived) that many people admired, respected, and followed his work.

The problem for Apple is that any organization that gains its authority because they have a charismatic leader must eventually deal with the loss of that leader. How can you hold on to your authority and legitimacy with the charismatic figure gone? You have to build the revolutionary ideas and practices of the figure into the bureaucracy or formal structure of the organization. Weber called this process of transferring authority from a charismatic person to a bureaucratic organization the “Routinization of Charisma”. In the corporate world they call this process a “succession plan.”

When Jobs resigned on August 24th Tim Cook succeeded him and became the CEO. A few weeks later on October 4 Cook took the stage for the first time to lead Apple’s announcement of the iPhone 4S. The announcement was nearly identical in form to the announcements led by Jobs. During the announcement Cook said multiple times, “There is a lot of momentum here at Apple” which could be interpreted sociologically as, “nothing has changed; we still deserve the authority our previous leader gained through his charisma.” The entire announcement was almost identical to the announcements except many viewers noted that Tim Cook did not have the charisma of Steve Jobs.

Jobs was a master at getting the media to write the headlines he wanted, but after this weeks talk ABC’s headline read “Apple Unveils Anti-Climatic iPhone 4S.” Anti-climatic!?! Comedians ripped Cook for his poor stage presence in a video. Traders showed their disapproval as Apple’s stock price dropped a half percent after the announcement. I’m not trying to pile on here, I’m just pointing out that transitioning from a charismatic authority figure to less charismatic figure is hard; or as Weber would say it, the “routinization of charisma” is difficult if not impossible.

Now that he is gone, I’m sad because I enjoyed so much listening to him speak about his work. He was an artist in so many ways and I’m sad I won’t get to see anymore of his work. Rest in peace Mr. Jobs.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What is the difference between rational-legal authority and traditional authority? Give some examples of both that were not discussed in the article?
  2. Think of some other charismatic authority figures alive today. What about them makes them charismatic and gains them their authority?
  3. What are some other examples of the routinization of charisma that we have seen throughout history?

Note from the author:

I wish to send my condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Jobs. This piece was written with the utmost respect for everyone grieving.