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Building charisma: Steve Jobs used rhetorical devices to win over his audiences (Image: Ben Stanfield)

  • Researchers have detailed Jobs' charismatic leadership style

  • Jobs altered his style of rhetoric according to the situation

  • Repeated his central themes no matter what the context

  • The Apple guru used a mix of persuasive strategies

Steve Jobs provides business leaders with a perfect template of how to deliver expertly tailored rhetoric, according to researchers.

The late Apple boss was a master of the art of effective and persuasive speaking, employing various strategies to adapt to differing scenarios and situations, while still delivering a constant message, according to Loizos Heracleous and Laura Klaering, of Warwick Business School.

Their paper, Charismatic Leadership and Rhetorical Competence: An Analysis of Steve Jobs’ Rhetoric, published in Group & Organization Management, looked at how Jobs adapted his rhetoric for different situations.

Using Aristotle’s classic tools of persuasion – ethos, pathos and logos – the study looked at how Jobs used each of them in different situations, from the courtroom, to a TV interview and a conference on digital technology.

Professor Heracleous believes leaders in business and public can learn a lot from the rhetorical skills exhibited by Jobs and “employ them to increase followers’ belief in their charisma as well as their own effectiveness as a persuasive speaker”.

“We found that Jobs did not exhibit a single rhetorical style, but rather altered it depending on the situation and yet still managed to deliver a constant message to support his company’s strategy,” said Professor Heracleous.

“Our research highlights how it is important for leaders first to be clear about the central themes they wish to emphasise, and second, to employ these across all situations where they have to speak publicly, no matter what the context. But they have to be aware of the context in using the right mix of persuasive strategies for the occasion, whether that is ethos, pathos or logos. 

“Further, Jobs’ rhetoric drew from figurative language, using stories and metaphors to emphasise his messages. Stories and metaphors are more memorable than statistics, which accounts for his effectiveness in delivering memorable messages.

“Jobs was brilliant at choosing the right mix of persuasive strategies. This combined with the stability of his central messages was his great rhetorical skill.”

The three scenarios explored by the academics were: Jobs as defender of his company and actions as CEO in a deposition by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in March 2008 relating to allegations of backdating stock options; under aggressive questioning in a TV interview with CNBC in June 2005 for Apple shifting from IBM to Intel as a supplier; and an onstage discussion at the D8 All Things Digital Conference in June 2010.

In each one they looked at the ethos – Jobs’ credibility in the situation – how Jobs used pathos – appealing to the audience’s emotions; and logos – the extent to which he used logical arguments.

Professor Heracleous said: “We found that the driving factor in Jobs’ rhetoric was his perceived ethos, which significantly influenced how he used logos and pathos.

"When ethos was low, high levels of pathos were employed by Jobs and low levels of logos, such as in the pre-trial interview with the SEC. When ethos was high, lower levels of pathos were used and higher logos, which is what happened at the digital conference, where he already had an admiring audience.

“Leaders can follow Jobs’ example and try to understand the level of their perceived ethos, how credible they are with that audience. Then they can gauge the appropriate mix of pathos and logos in their rhetoric; and the extent to which they should employ rich, figurative language.”

Jobs was also able to deliver a constant set of messages or themes across the different scenarios, about his company’s products, future journey and exceptional people. In addition to the mix of ethos, pathos and logos, he employed rhetorical strategies such as amplification, repetition, or re-framing the discussion in a way that suited his goals, such as moving the tone of the CNBC interview from 'businesses at war' to 'business on a journey'.

Professor Heracleous added: “We found Jobs exhibited high proficiency in customising his rhetorical style to the broader contextual situation, but simultaneously there were constant features in his rhetoric, in terms of central themes and root metaphors, indicating that an important skill of leadership may be the integration of continuity and customisation in leadership rhetoric.

“Our findings suggest that charisma is not an ineffable, magical quality as classically understood, but can rather be seen as a consequence of the relationships among leader, audience and context.”

Further reading:

Heracleous, L. 2015. The secret behind Apple's strategy - 'Quantum Strategy'. WBS Core Insights.

Ozcan, P. 2014. Squabbling egos delayed Apple Pay tech for 15 years. WBS Core Insights.


Loizos Heracleous is Professor of Strategy and teaches Strategy and Practice on the Executive MBA, Global Online MBA, Executive MBA (London) and Global Online MBA (London).

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