Tag Archives: tough bosses

Twyla Tharp and Steve Jobs – (There are Good Tough Bosses and Bad Tough Bosses…)

Everybody probably has a bad boss horror story or two.  And there are some genuine horror stories out there.

But, there are good bad tough bosses and bad tough bosses.  What is the difference?  One difference may be this:  is the boss tough because the end result is worth all the coaching, coaxing, demonstrating, demanding, until the people get it right?

I think Steve Jobs and Twyla Tharp are two great exemplars of this kind of tough boss.

Twyla Tharp:

I recently ran across this wonderful 2006 article about the Kennedy Center Honoree Twyla Tharp, To Dance Beneath the Diamond Skies by Alex Witchel.  Here are some key excerpts:

But it is probably time to say this: There was not a person in that theater, including the 19 performers, musicians and production staff, who did not admire Tharp. Those new to her are scared of her, those used to her are over her, because they know that behind the barking lies a devotion to them, to the work — always, always the work — that is religious in its fervor. Yes, she is a control freak, a perfectionist, a zealot in forming a vision and stopping at nothing to see it realized. But when it is realized, when her dances are good-better-best, flying off the stage like some biblical fire on a mountaintop, there is nothing in the world like them. Twenty-three years ago, Robert Joffrey said that Tharp’s work “didn’t look like anyone else’s.” It still doesn’t.

“There is nothing in the world like them.”  The end result may just be worth the cost it took to get there.  She simply made the best better.  And she also made the “average” much better than ever before.  In her book, The Collaborative Habit, Tharp wrote:

As a choreographer, my task is to make the best possible work with the dancers I find in the room on any given day. 

This is simply the greatest description of the day-to-day work of being the boss I have ever read.  It is the job of the boss (manager, supervisor) to make the best possible work with the people in the room, on the team, at any given time.

By the way, there is a wonderful story in the article about the time Twyla Tharp had to show Baryshnikov how it needed to be done:

Huot sat at one of the computers and played footage of Baryshnikov in rehearsal.  “What’s that?” Tharp asked shortly.  “This is the one where he can’t do what you do,” Huot said, his tone gently teasing. “It’s your favorite thing in the world, which is why I kept it for you.” On the tape, Baryshnikov held a cigarette, shirtless, as Tharp demonstrated the steps. Hers were vivid, crisp. His were blurry, indistinct. Impatiently, she showed him again. He turned away.

“That’s right, go pout,” Tharp said mockingly to the screen. The next shots were of him in performance, his steps breathtaking. “Yeah, he got it,” Tharp said.

She knew how to do the steps; she demonstrated the steps, and she pushed Baryshnikov until he “got it.”

…To be a Tharp dancer is to master complex, intricate movements and steps that can defy gravity — in 1975 Baryshnikov told The Times: “It is very difficult to learn her steps.. . .One variation alone took me three weeks to learn, working a few hours every day.”

Steve Jobs:

Regarding Jobs, the stories are endless, and somewhat legendary.  He certainly could be something of a world-class pain to work with.  But, he too could bring out the very best in people – more than they knew they had in them.  Consider these revealing excerpts from the Walter Isaacson book, Steve Jobs:

For all of his obnoxious behavior, Jobs also had the ability to instill in his team an esprit de corps. After tearing people down, he would find ways to lift them up and make them feel that being part of the Macintosh project was an amazing mission. Every six months he would take most of his team on a two-day retreat at a nearby resort.

Jobs had latched onto what he believed was a key management lesson from his Macintosh experience: You have to be ruthless if you want to build a team of A players. “It’s too easy, as a team grows, to put up with a few B players, and they then attract a few more B players, and soon you will even have some C players,” he recalled. “The Macintosh experience taught me that A players like to work only with other A players, which means you can’t indulge B players.”

“What I’m best at doing is finding a group of talented people and making things with them,” he told the magazine.

Business Week asked him why he treated employees so harshly, Jobs said it made the company better.

…and his great talent, Jobs said, was to “get A performances out of B players.” At Apple, Jobs told him, he would get to work with A players.

The literature about leadership is pretty unanimous about this key role a leader plays.  In Liz Wiseman’s book, Multipliers, she writes that the leader has to “multiply” the good effects of the workers, and never diminish them.  A good leader “multiplies’ the results of the workers he/she leads.  In Kouzes and Pozner’s Encouraging the Heart, they argue that for people to be their best, they must be encouraged, in their hearts, by the one who leads them.  And when they are so encouraged, they become more productive, actually better at their jobs.

Whatever Twyla Tharp and Steve Jobs had, or did, it worked.  They both developed quite a track record of bringing out the very best in the people who worked for them.  (Of course, Twyla Tharp is still at it…).

If you are a leader, this is the test, isn’t it?  Are you making your people better?  Are you pushing them to do more than they even knew they could do?  Are you making the average much better, and the best even better still?

If not, you’ve got some leadership skills to develop.