Lessons in Leadership (I): Steve Jobs

I am reading books on leadership with a group of friends at HBU and we began with Steve JobsWalter Isaacson is a better writer than Jobs’ a topic and at times the gap between talent and the subject’s pretensions shows in the book: Jobs was less consequential than he believed and Isaacson struggles to do more than show that Jobs was not the guru and revolutionary he pretended. Don’t get me wrong: Jobs, like Walt Disney, was an important figure in the twentieth century, but Jobs thought he was very important and except as an icon he was not.

There was more than a dash of P.T. Barnum in Jobs, a famous “reality distortion field” that is every conman’s tool. Like Barnum, Jobs was not all huckster: sometimes what look like reality distortion was reasonable aspiration teamed with rigorous demands for hard work. Jobs was charismatic and when a project was possible, then his charisma could do what was unlikely. Other times, as with his cancer or NEXT, Jobs distorted reality trying the impossible and failed leaving people burned out on Steve Jobs. He distorted reality to make himself rich, powerful, and fulfilled: a narcissist, “not that there is anything wrong with that,” Apple stockholders exclaimed.

If you accepted Jobs self-evaluation, then you forgave him much. Jobs was not a very good man, but he did have great gifts and strong abilities as a leader. He was also very, very good at being Steve Jobs. Some of those strengths cannot be emulated by a moral person: people are not means to an end for a Christian. And yet even most of the people burned by Jobs, and there were more than a few, recognized his talent, especially as a leader. Like the much greater Walt Disney, Jobs could not do what he set others to do (he was no programmer), but he convinced them it could be done. Jobs also had a finely tuned gut instinct, also like Walt, for what people wanted.

So what did Jobs get right?

First, Jobs looked for “A” talent and did not accept mediocrity. He understood that “A” talent likes to be surrounded by “A” talent and that functionaries and time wasters do not function and waste more than their own time. People make an organization, not the organization. He would pay what it took to keep the best, but would fire those who stood in his way. Flee any organization that never lets anyone go, but leave faster if the brightest and best abandon the company.

Five mediocrities around the boardroom table cannot accumulate genius.

Jobs got this right, but it does come with two cautions. He was too apt to go with a first impression that divided the world between winners and losers. His relationships swung between disproportionate admiration to unreasoning hatred.

Second, Jobs made Apple into a movement as much as a company. Apple had values and if the company never practiced them with full consistency, Jobs tried. He believed in his own advertisements and the sincerity showed. He wasn’t selling you technology, he was (in his heart and mind) leading a digital revolution.

Every decision, even counterintuitive ones fit that model. If he made his technology a “closed” box, it enabled creatives to ignore the technology to create. An Apple produce “just worked” so many of us could forget about the product and do our work. Jobs loved his product and believed (or wanted to believe) in all of it. His famous demand for beauty and detail was sometimes paralyzing, but it was fundamentally sound. Jobs reminds me never to hire a person who just wants a job. 

Apple refused to accept “loser” status. If they were behind in a technology (discs or drives), they simply changed the rules by leapfrogging that tech. Doing this requires more than competent people, or even raw brain power, it demands visionary genius. Jobs was such a man and he hired people like himself.

Jobs did not ignore market research, but he was not paralyzed by it. He loved the Ford quip that dismissed research by claiming that if asked people would not have wanted a car, but a faster horse. The iPad is a great example of Jobs’ daring. I mocked the iPad as a bloated iPhone or as lame computer (no keyboard!), but Jobs understood a niche existed and I caught up.

And yet the quip is not the whole story. Apple religiously tried out stores and products, often on executives. If a corporate executive at Apple hated a phone feature, they knew we probably would as well.

Fourth, Jobs was not afraid of failure, because he never believed failure was the whole story. Jobs had a career marked by risk and not all those risks worked out, but Jobs saw that failure could birth bigger success. Nothing ever simply fails or succeeds. Success has the seed of future failure if taken too comfortably and failure often spins off great opportunities. PIXAR, after all, was not originally all about animation. NEXT was not so great, but it enabled him to return to Apple with some ideas, software, and people.

Finally, Jobs demanded excellence, but knew he needed a profit. Many a visionary fails because he does not know when to compromise. Jobs could not get everything he wanted, so when he had to do so he would put a product with the best he could get at the price point he needed. He never lost sight of the objective (faster, smaller, thinner, more beautiful), but that do not stop him from compromise.

A bankrupt Apple would not be able to do better next time.

Steve Jobs was held back from full greatness by his own moral failure to treat people humanly (as colleagues like Woz did), but he also possessed gifts that enabled him to do what few others could have done: bring the humanities and technology together. This fairly inhumane man gave gentle humanities the tools of tech.

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