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What do skier Bode Miller and Apple’s Steve Jobs have in common?

June 2008

Even if you are not a big fan of ski racing, my guess is that you have heard of Bode Miller. He is not only the most winning American skier ever—a four time world champion in four different types of ski racing—but also legendary for both his unorthodox training technique and his lone-wolf personality. What is most unusual about Bode, however, is his style. He is very unorthodox. He often looks like a crazed break dancer on skis. He crashes much more frequently than he wins. Only his unbelievable cat-like instincts and balance allow him to win with this wild style. Here is a typical mishap for you to watch if you are unfamiliar. ( No one in his right mind would try to ski just like Bode Miller. It works for him alone.
Why are we talking about ski racing as the temperature on my deck approaches 90 degrees? A friend recently sent me an article about Steve Jobs, the mercurial and brilliant founder of Apple. The title is “How Apple Got Everything Right by Doing Everything Wrong”[1]. ( Steve Jobs is to business what Bode Miller is to ski racing. As noted business guru and former Apple executive Guy Kawasaki puts it, “Steve proves that it is OK to be an asshole. He just has a different operating system”.
I see CEOs and other business leaders who try to be the smartest-guy-in-the-room get their fanny kicked because they aren’t as intuitive as Steve Jobs or as cat-like as Bode Miller. They fall victim to the erroneous concept that one author called, “The One Big Brain”; the belief that all the brilliant thinking must be done by a small group, or even worse, by one person.[2]
While I very much admire Apple’s products and get as much enjoyment as the next guy watching someone compete and win in an unconventional manner, I would no more suggest that a CEO emulate Steve Jobs than I would tell a budding ski racer to “do it like Bode”. Sometimes someone with savant-like talent can get away with unusual behavior and still win big; most of us can’t. Looking at Bode Miller and saying, “I want to ski like that” or looking at Steve Jobs and saying, “I want to lead like that” makes about as much sense as trying to think smarter by getting your hair cut like Albert Einstein!

[1] Kahney, Leander (2008). How Apple Got Everything Right by Doing Everything Wrong, Wired, April, 2008.
[2] Hunt, Pearson (1966). Fallacy of the One Big Brain, Harvard Business Review, July-August, pp84-90.