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Three leadership qualities I learned from Steve Jobs

December 21, 2011

“Here’s to the Crazy Ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world – are the ones who DO!”
~ Apple Computers ~

The 1997 quote from the famous “Think Different” marketing campaign for Apple products might have been conceived to represent the elusive qualities of Apple product users, but it is also a very good description of Steve Jobs himself whose business philosophy and colorful life has been described in his biography written by Walter Isaacson.

Yes, I did read the 600+ pages of Steve’s life including the proud and not so proud moments both as a leader and as a family man. I saw him as a youngster who thought the rules did not apply to him, a young college drop-out who chose to study Buddhism rather than finish Reed College. I saw a young entrepreneur whose way to get what he wanted was by either yelling or sobbing uncontrollably in front of his business partners and finally I saw him as a powerful CEO whose way to approach difficult problems was to avoid them all together including avoiding his early cancer diagnosis that might have cost him his life. Was Steve Job’s way to get what he wanted right? Not exactly. Was it successful? You bet.

Knowing his unconventional way of management here are three leadership qualities that made me appreciate Steve Jobs regardless of his self-centered way of managing Apple as a business.

VISION

His early life experiences as a Zen Buddhist with a strong belief in the power of sublime minimalism contributed greatly to his understanding of himself as an artist and subsequently shaped his positioning of Apple as a company at the intersection of technology and humanity. His vision for Apple was to develop products whose simple user interface and graceful design would delight users of all ages. He witnessed how companies such as Microsoft were able to dominate the software market by developing and subsequently licensing their operating system to run on multiple 3rd party platforms. Jobs was firmly against that approach. He wanted end-to-end control over the user experience which he achieved by limiting his software to run on Apple products and retaining full control over user experience both in terms of hardware and software.

Jobs not only believed in his vision but truly lived it through his actions: the way he build his team at Apple, the way he chose his business partners, the way he advertised his company…. heck, even the way he dressed and conducted himself at business meetings. There was no going half way. The way Jobs stood by his vision inspired his employees and commanded great respect from his business partners and even his competitors.  We need more leaders able to develop a clear vision and stand by it the way Jobs did.

FOCUS & DETERMINATION

“Pretend to be completely in control and people will assume that you are.”
– Nolan Bushnell who founded Atari, Inc.

Once Steve had his vision he was able to filter out distractions to make the path to success perfectly clear. When he took over Apple in 1997 and the company was on the brink of financial disaster he knew to eliminate all but a handful of key products & projects that matched his vision. That freed up resources and funds for Apple to survive and turn its finances around.

The book makes it obvious that Jobs did not tolerate “velvety” leaders that were afraid to offend others. He was direct and unfiltered which took some getting used to. He blamed President Obama’s unwillingness to upset others as his greatest weakness. He was equally direct and unfiltered with his top hires as he was with rank and file Apple employees.

Being a very intense man (at early age he thought himself how to stare at someone without blinking) he demanded nothing but full devotion from his employees that he hand-selected and considered his A-team. While his determination was widely considered extreme and even nicknamed Steve’s “Reality Distortion Field” most of his employees were willing to put up with it because he made them believe in things they never thought were possible and most importantly he helped them achieved the impossible.

PASSION FOR GREAT USER EXPERIENCE

“Some people say, ‘Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.
– Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs did not invite users into his design studios. He never relied on market research and never crowd-sourced the ideation process. Instead, Jobs surrounded himself with top designers (incl. Pixar’s John Lasseter and Apple’s Jony Ive ) who appreciated his minimalist esthetics and followed his design simplicity. He and his team relied on themselves and their gut feeling to develop products that users did not even realize they needed such as iPod or iPhone.

“My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary.”
– Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs believed he created a company with “a deep current of humanity in [their] innovation” where “simplicity was the ultimate sophistication” and where great engineers similarly to great artists had a deep desire to express themselves. Because of Apple’s out-of-the box design approaches Steve was able to change entire industries: the music industry with iPod (1000 songs in your pocket) and iTunes that included pay-per-song music selling, the phone industry with iTunes store with 3rd party apps, the retail industry with Apple stores and finally the publishing industry with iPad. Was it easy? Not at all. The book describes in great details the struggles Jobs went through to convince the music industry to break records into individual songs and to agree to sell them for 99 cents. There were other projects ready to be worked on including Job’s desire to re-shape the textbook industry by offering electronic versions of texbooks that were more interactive, easy to update and ultimately less expensive to purchase. Unfortunately he ran out of time to complete that project.

It was refreshing to see a CEO so focused and determined to make great user experience the leading theme in Apple’s vision. It paid off immensely with Apple becoming the most valuable brand in the world.

STEVE JOBS’ WINNING LEADERSHIP COMBO

1. Clear vision, 2. unwavering determination to execute on that vision and 3. great appreciation for top-notch design – this was Job’s winning leadership combo that caused a start-up in his parents garage to grow and change the world of business.  I recommend for every business leader and aspiring entrepreneur to pick up Walter Isaacson’s book. There is plenty to learn from this iCEO.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Brent Laymon permalink
    December 21, 2011 9:58 pm

    Great post, Aneta. Insightful, informative, well-written.

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  1. How to Google-ize your job « Aneta Hall’s Blog

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