The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs

lessons of steve jobs

 

His saga is the entrepreneurial creation myth writ large: Steve Jobs cofounded Apple in his parents’ garage in 1976, was ousted in 1985, returned to rescue it from near bankruptcy in 1997, and by the time he died, in October 2011, had built it into the world’s most valuable company. Along the way he helped to transform seven industries: personal computing, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, retail stores, and digital publishing. He thus belongs in the pantheon of America’s great innovators, along with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Walt Disney. None of these men was a saint, but long after their personalities are forgotten, history will remember how they applied imagination to technology and business.

In the months since my biography of Jobs came out, countless commentators have tried to draw management lessons from it. The essence of Jobs, I think, is that his personality was integral to his way of doing business.

I once asked him what he thought was his most important creation, thinking he would answer the iPad or the Macintosh. Instead he said it was Apple the company. Making an enduring company, he said, was both far harder and more important than making a great product. How did he do it? Business schools will be studying that question a century from now. Here are what I consider the keys to his success.

Focus

Focus was ingrained in Jobs’s personality and had been honed by his Zen training. He relentlessly filtered out what he considered distractions. Colleagues and family members would at times be exasperated as they tried to get him to deal with issues—a legal problem, a medical diagnosis—they considered important. But he would give a cold stare and refuse to shift his laserlike focus until he was ready.

Simplify

Jobs’s Zenlike ability to focus was accompanied by the related instinct to simplify things by zeroing in on their essence and eliminating unnecessary components. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” declared Apple’s first marketing brochure. To see what that means, compare any Apple software with, say, Microsoft Word, which keeps getting uglier and more cluttered with nonintuitive navigational ribbons and intrusive features.

Jobs aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering, rather than merely ignoring, complexity. Achieving this depth of simplicity, he realized, would produce a machine that felt as if it deferred to users in a friendly way, rather than challenging them. “It takes a lot of hard work,” he said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.”

Take Responsibility End to End

Jobs knew that the best way to achieve simplicity was to make sure that hardware, software, and peripheral devices were seamlessly integrated. An Apple ecosystem—an iPod connected to a Mac with iTunes software, for example—allowed devices to be simpler, syncing to be smoother, and glitches to be rarer. From the performance of the ARM microprocessor in the iPhone to the act of buying that phone in an Apple Store, every aspect of the customer experience was tightly linked together.

“People are busy,” he said. “They have other things to do than think about how to integrate their computers and devices.” Being in the Apple ecosystem could be as sublime as walking in one of the Zen gardens of Kyoto that Jobs loved, and neither experience was created by worshipping at the altar of openness or by letting a thousand flowers bloom.

When Behind, Leapfrog

The mark of an innovative company is not only that it comes up with new ideas first. It also knows how to leapfrog when it finds itself behind. That happened when Jobs built the original iMac. He focused on making it useful for managing a user’s photos and videos, but it was left behind when dealing with music. The iMac’s slot drive couldn’t burn CDs. But instead of merely catching up by upgrading the iMac’s CD drive, he decided to create an integrated system that would transform the music industry. The result was the combination of iTunes, the iTunes Store, and the iPod, which allowed users to buy, share, manage, store, and play music better than they could with any other devices. After the iPod became a huge success, Jobs spent little time relishing it. Instead he began to worry about what might endanger it. One possibility was that mobile phone makers would start adding music players to their handsets. So he cannibalized iPod sales by creating the iPhone. “If we don’t cannibalize ourselves, someone else will,” he said.

Put Products Before Profits

When Jobs and his small team designed the original Macintosh, in the early 1980s, his injunction was to make it “insanely great.” He never spoke of profit maximization or cost trade-offs. “Don’t worry about price, just specify the computer’s abilities,” he told the original team leader. At his first retreat with the Macintosh team, he began by writing a maxim on his whiteboard: “Don’t compromise.” The machine that resulted cost too much and led to Jobs’s ouster from Apple. But the Macintosh also “put a dent in the universe,” as he said, by accelerating the home computer revolution. And in the long run he got the balance right: Focus on making the product great and the profits will follow.

Don’t Be a Slave to Focus Groups

When Jobs took his original Macintosh team on its first retreat, one member asked whether they should do some market research to see what customers wanted. “No,” Jobs replied, “because customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.” He invoked Henry Ford’s line “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” Caring deeply about what customers want is much different from continually asking them what they want; it requires intuition and instinct about desires that have not yet formed. “Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page,” Jobs explained. Instead of relying on market research, he honed his version of empathy—an intimate intuition about the desires of his customers. “We made the iPod for ourselves,” he said, “and when you’re doing something for yourself, or your best friend or family, you’re not going to cheese out.”

Bend Reality

Jobs’s (in)famous ability to push people to do the impossible was dubbed by colleagues his Reality Distortion Field, after an episode of Star Trek in which aliens create a convincing alternative reality through sheer mental force. An early example was when Jobs was on the night shift at Atari and pushed Steve Wozniak to create a game called Breakout. Woz said it would take months, but Jobs stared at him and insisted he could do it in four days. Woz knew that was impossible, but he ended up doing it.

Those who did not know Jobs interpreted the Reality Distortion Field as a euphemism for bullying and lying. But those who worked with him admitted that the trait, infuriating as it might be, led them to perform extraordinary feats. Because Jobs felt that life’s ordinary rules didn’t apply to him, he could inspire his team to change the course of computer history with a small fraction of the resources that Xerox or IBM had.

Impute

Jobs’s early mentor Mike Markkula wrote him a memo in 1979 that urged three principles. The first two were “empathy” and “focus.” The third was an awkward word, “impute,” but it became one of Jobs’s key doctrines. He knew that people form an opinion about a product or a company on the basis of how it is presented and packaged.. “When you open the box of an iPhone or iPad, we want that tactile experience to set the tone for how you perceive the product,” Jobs said. Sometimes Jobs used the design of a machine to “impute” a signal rather than to be merely functional.

Push for Perfection

During the development of almost every product he ever created, Jobs at a certain point “hit the pause button” and went back to the drawing board because he felt it wasn’t perfect. That happened even with the movie Toy Story.

Tolerate Only “A” Players

Jobs was famously impatient, petulant, and tough with the people around him. But his treatment of people, though not laudable, emanated from his passion for perfection and his desire to work with only the best. It was his way of preventing what he called “the bozo explosion,” in which managers are so polite that mediocre people feel comfortable sticking around. “I don’t think I run roughshod over people,” he said, “but if something sucks, I tell people to their face. It’s my job to be honest.” When I pressed him on whether he could have gotten the same results while being nicer, he said perhaps so. “But it’s not who I am,” he said.

Engage Face-to-Face

Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew all too well its potential to be isolating, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings. “There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by e-mail and iChat,” he told me. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” He had the Pixar building designed to promote unplanned encounters and collaborations. Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

Know Both the Big Picture and The Details

Jobs’s passion was applied to issues both large and minuscule. Some CEOs are great at vision; others are managers who know that God is in the details. Jobs was both. For example, in 2000 he came up with the grand vision that the personal computer should become a “digital hub” for managing all of a user’s music, videos, photos, and content, and thus got Apple into the personal-device business with the iPod and then the iPad. In 2010 he came up with the successor strategy—the “hub” would move to the cloud—and Apple began building a huge server farm so that all a user’s content could be uploaded and then seamlessly synced to other personal devices. But even as he was laying out these grand visions, he was fretting over the shape and color of the screws inside the iMac.

Combine the Humanities with The Sciences and Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

Steve Jobs was a product of the two great social movements that emanated from the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s. The first was the counterculture of hippies and antiwar activists, which was marked by psychedelic drugs, rock music, and antiauthoritarianism. The second was the high-tech and hacker culture of Silicon Valley, filled with engineers, geeks, wireheads, phreakers, cyberpunks, hobbyists, and garage entrepreneurs. Jobs stayed hungry and foolish throughout his career by making sure that the business and engineering aspect of his personality was always complemented by a hippie nonconformist side from his days as an artistic, acid-dropping, enlightenment-seeking rebel.

In every aspect of his life—the women he dated, the way he dealt with his cancer diagnosis, the way he ran his business—his behavior reflected the contradictions, confluence, and eventual synthesis of all these varying strands. Even as Apple became corporate, Jobs asserted his rebel and counterculture streak in its ads, as if to proclaim that he was still a hacker and a hippie at heart.

No one else in our era could better firewire together poetry and processors in a way that jolted innovation. And Jobs’ did it with an intuitive feel for business strategy.

At almost every product launch over the past decade, Jobs ended with a slide that showed a sign at the intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology Streets. The creativity that can occur when a feel for both the humanities and the sciences exists in one strong personality was what most interested me in my biographies of Franklin and Einstein, and I believe that it will be a key to building innovative economies in the 21st century. It is the essence of applied imagination, and it’s why both the humanities and the sciences are critical for any society that is to have a creative edge in the future.

An unabridged version of this article appeared in the April 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review. The contents of this article have been excerpted from Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster.

Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, is the author of Steve Jobs, and of biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein.

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