FIFTEEN LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF STEVE JOBS
Steve Jobs had a way of seeing things that didn’t yet exist, and these things were usually revolutionary. He once said that “people don’t know what they want until we tell them what they want.” It would be difficult, for example, for some to imagine a world without an iphone, ipad, or ipod. Jobs is essentially single-handedly responsible for these gadgets. His innovation made Apple the leading brand in technology. While most companies imitated the latest technology, Jobs created it, and Apple was always steps ahead of the competition.
This is perhaps why the Apple stock has been dropping lately. While the new ipad mini is a great gadget (I personally prefer it over the normal-sized ipad), Jobs would have never released a product to “compete” with other gadgets on the market. Moreover, Jobs would have never released a product with old technology. The ipad mini is essentially a small ipad 2 (the latest ipad is a generation 4). Many see this as an omen that Apple has lost its innovative edge and is squeezing as much money as possible out of their current technology. This undermines Apple’s core. Therefore, some believe that the seeds of Apple died with Jobs and are fearful of what the future might hold.
Some months ago I picked up a copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs. It is easily one of the most influential books I have ever read. The following surmises some of the lessons I picked up from one of the most innovative individuals to ever walk the planet. I believe every leader can learn something from the life of Steve Jobs.
LESSON ONE: IMITATE THE GREAT, EXECUTE IT BETTER (p. 98)
Picasso once said, “good artists copy, great artists steal.” Jobs referenced this quote while reminiscing about Apple’s “heist,” as Isaacson describes it, on Xerox PARC’s revolutionary bitmap technology (modern day computer screens). While I do not believe that great leaders should “steal” ideas from others, I do think that there is something to be said of imitating great ideas, so long as credit is given where it is due. Believers are, afterall, called to “imitate Christ” (Eph 5:1).
Xerox was not able to execute on their revolutionary idea, and Apple therefore was able to take the reigns and change the world. “In the annals of innovation, new ideas are only part of the equation. Execution is just as important” (98).
LESSON TWO: THERE IS POWER IN THE TONGUE (p. 240)
People who serve in influential positions should be careful with their words. This is described well by Alvy Ray Smith, co-founder of Pixar: “I grew up a Southern Baptist, and we had revival meetings with mesmerizing but corrupt preachers. Steve’s got it: the power of the tongue and the web of words that catches people up” (240).
Leaders should be careful with how they use the power of their tongue.
LESSON THREE: CREATE A LIFESTYLE BRAND (p. 332)
Beliefs should be a lifestyle, not merely thoughts.
Larry Ellison, co-founder and chief executive officer of Oracle Corporation (one of the world’s leading enterprise software companies), notes, “Steve created the only lifestyle brand in the tech industry” (332). “Jobs,” Isaacson writes, “was able to encourage people to define themselves . . .” (332).
It is also interesting to note that Jobs was deeply involved in Apple’s marketing campaigns. “There’s not a CEO on the planet who deals with marketing the way Steve does. Every Wednesday he approves each new commercial, print ad, and billboard” (332).
LESSON FOUR: STAY FOCUSED (pp. 336-7, 339, 460, 552)
Jobs believed that things should be as simple as possible. When he first arrived back at Apple, Jobs essentially dismantled every project the company was working on and narrowed their focus down to four products.
Isaacson notes that, “One of Jobs’s great strengths was knowing how to focus” (336) and that, “The ability to focus saved Apple” (339). Jobs used his company meetings to enforce focus. “Instead of encouraging each group to let product lines proliferate based on marketing considerations, or permitting a thousand ideas to bloom, Jobs insisted that Apple focus on just two or three priorities at a time” (460).
“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do” (336).
LESSON FIVE: DON’T LET MONEY BE YOUR PRIMARY MOTIVATION (p. 365)
When Jobs returned to Apple he became the “iCEO” (interim Chief Executive Officer) and took only $1 a year. Of course he was already a multimillionaire, but that doesn’t necessarily dissuade a person from wanting more. Actually, Jobs lost a lot of his money by investing in another company he had started called NeXT, so a healthy paycheck would have been enticing. For Jobs, however, it was about the company, not the dollar.
Apple was a company Jobs started in his parents garage and it was more than just a business. It was his baby. During his iCEO period Apple begged Jobs to take a modest stock grant that would have been worth $400 million dollars, but Jobs refused: “I don’t want the people I work with at Apple to think I am coming back to get rich,” Jobs said. He instead made $2.50 during that period. Jobs assessed that the main reason the company struggled during his absence was because decisions were being made by how much money could be made, instead of by what great products Apple could produce.
Ironically, it was when the company stopped focusing on making money that they actually started making money.
LESSON SIX: CONTROL THE EXPERIENCE (p. 369)
Jobs was a control-addict. In many ways this was a downfall, but it was also one his greatest attributes. Jobs sought to create an “end-to-end” experience with every product Apple made. This is why the Apple store was created, why Apple products do not have on or off switches or upgradable hardware, and why every product is packaged so cleanly (from the box to it’s sleek designs).
Leaders can learn something about how a customer perceives how much time you put into your product.
LESSON SEVEN: DON’T PROCRASTINATE AND EXPECT PERFECTION (p. 374)
Jobs once said, “If something isn’t right, you can’t just ignore it and say you’ll fix it later. That’s what other companies do” (374).
Isaacson writes, “Jobs liked to tell the story about how everything that he had done correctly had required a moment when he hit the rewind button. In each case he had to rework something that he discovered was not perfect” (373).
Jobs did this during his Pixar days with the Toy Story character Woody, who had evolved into a jerk in early production. He also did it with the original Macintosh computer. Jobs was renowned for delaying the release of a product simply because it “didn’t look right” or because he decided that he didn’t like a certain feature after all.
Jobs made sure that every product was the best that it could be.
LESSON EIGHT: LEADERS SET THE TONE (p. 426)
Isaacson notes that the managers at Apple were “excitable and exhausted” because Jobs tended to be “volatile, and people felt nervous about where they stood with him” (426). This was one of Jobs’s weakest leadership attributes.
Although Jobs was influential at Pixar, he left the managing up to others. It became a haven where Jobs could escape the intensity (that he created) at Apple. The storytellers and illustrators seemed more serene and behaved more gently, both with each other and even with Jobs at Pixar. Isaacson notes, “In other words, the tone at each place was set at the top, by Jobs at Apple, but by Lasseter at Pixar” (426).
LESSON NINE: MEET WITH PEOPLE, IN PERSON (p. 431)
Despite being a denizen of the digital world, 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 email and iChat,” Jobs has said. “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” (431).
Proverbs 27:17 conveys this concept well, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
LESSON TEN: ALWAYS LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITY (p. 486)
Jobs saw the world through a opportunistic lens. He was a perfectionist and therefore was always looking for flaws and how he could make things better.
Isaacson tells a story of when Jobs was in the hospital, barely conscious because of his cancer, and how his creative personality was still coming through:
“At one point the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated. Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options of the mask and he would pick a design he liked. He told them that it was too ugly and too complex. He suggested ways it could be designed more simply” (486).
His wife notes: “He was very attuned to every nuance of the environment and objects around him” (486).
LESSON ELEVEN: BE MORAL (p. 516-7)
Jobs was not the most moral of persons. He often treated people poorly and lived life at his own standard. He was also, self-notably, a poor family man. When Jobs was convinced of something, however, he would rarely, if ever, concede.
This is illustrated well when people became angry because Jobs would not allow pornography onto his devices: “We believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone,” Jobs once wrote in an email to a customer (516). “You might care more about porn when you have kids. It’s not about freedom, it’s about Apple trying to do the right thing for its users” (517).
Leaders should live at high moral standards and never concede them.
LESSON TWELVE: NEVER COMPROMISE (pp. 516, 556, 561)
As seen in the pornography discussion, Jobs would not compromise his standards. When asked what he thought about our current administration, Jobs replied, “I’m disappointed in Obama. He’s having trouble leading because he’s reluctant to offend people.” Jobs said, “That’s not a problem I ever had” (556).
Leaders should be unapologetic about their convictions, standing behind what they believe. This is seen in how Jobs stood behind his “closed” system of operation versus the “open” system that companies like Microsoft created. Even if he was in the minority, Jobs would stand his ground. This is a quality many leaders should consider adopting.
LESSON THIRTEEN: GIVE AND TAKE CRITICISM (p. 517)
Jobs criticized everything and everyone, but he was also able to take it. He was often criticized for his end-to-end way of creating products because people wanted to switch out the hardware or add their own personality onto their devices. In responding to criticism concerning his morals on pornography, Jobs is quoted saying, “What have you done that’s so great? Do you create anything, or just criticize others’ work and belittle their motivation.”
Jobs looked at the log in his own eye before pointing out the speck in someone else’s.
LESSON FOURTEEN: BUILD A GOOD TEAM (p. 552)
In business meetings, Jobs spent his time doing two things: Focusing and choosing people. Jobs, through experience, developed a keen sense on who to trust, and how to build a team of people he could count on. He called these people “A-players,” and everyone else was a “B-player.”
Jobs was undoubtedly cruel in how he distinguished between A and B-players, but the concept of having trustworthy people around you is key in leadership.
LESSON FIFTEEN: LEAVE A LEGACY (p. 559)
Part of Jobs’s success is due to some experiences that he had in the early days of Hewlett and Packard (HP). Jobs reserved a special place in his heart for this company because they took a chance on him when he was young. In a conversation about how HP had failed in the tablet market, Jobs–usually thrilled at the news that a competitor had failed–expressed disappointment saying, “Hewlett and Packard built a great company, and they thought they had left it in good hands. But now it’s being dismembered and destroyed. It’s tragic” (558-9).
The words that followed express a rich thought concerning a leader’s legacy: “I hope I’ve left a stronger legacy so that will never happen at Apple” (559).
JOBS ON GOD (pp. 15, 453, 538, 571)
Steve Jobs is arguably the most innovative person to ever live. His influence impacted everything from education to music. The way we read, type a paper, and watch the news has all been changed because of Jobs’s ability to innovate. For this he deserves to be commended. However, Jobs missed the most important reason for which a person lives, which is to surrender one’s life to God.
Jobs’s disenchantment of God began in the July month of 1968, when Life published a shocking cover showing a pair of starving children in Biafra. Jobs took the magazine to Sunday school and confronted the church’s pastor. “If I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise even before I do it?” The pastor answered, “Yes, God knows everything.” Jobs then pulled out the Life cover and asked, “Well, does God know about this and what going to happen to those children?” The pastor answered, “Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.” “Jobs announced that he didn’t want to have anything to do with worshiping such a God, and he never went back to church,” Isaacson notes (15).
Jobs was later quoted saying, “I think different religions are different doors to the same house. Sometimes I think the house exists, and sometimes I don’t. It’s the great mystery.”
Jobs’s thoughts on God were rekindled upon learning that he had cancer. One of his first calls upon hearing the news was to Larry Brilliant, whom he first met in India. “Do you still believe in God?” Jobs asked him (453). Jobs also “made [a] deal with God or whatever” after his diagnosis “which was that [he] really wanted to see Reed (his son) graduate.” This “deal” got him through 2009.
At the end of his life, Jobs discussed his beliefs on God with his biographer. Isaacson appropriately concludes his book with their conversation:
One sunny afternoon, when he wasn’t feeling well, Jobs sat in the garden behind his house and reflected on death. He talked about his experiences in India almost four decades earlier, his study of Buddhism, and his views on reincarnation and spiritual transcendence. “I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God,” he said. “For most of my life, I’ve felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.” He admitted that, as he faced death, he might be overestimating the odds out of a desire to believe in an afterlife. “I like to think that something survives after you die,” he said. “It’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures.” He fell silent for a very long time. “But on the other hand, perhaps it’s like an on-off switch,’ he said. “Click! And you’re gone.” Then he paused again and smiled slightly. “Maybe that’s why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices” (570-1).
Personally, I am thankful for the life of Steve Jobs. Much of my leadership philosophy derives from it. However, it is my conviction that one can only be a true leader when one’s life is ultimately lived to serve God through his son Jesus Christ. I am inspired by Jobs in many ways, but his spirituality is not one of them.
Bibliography: Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.