What I’ve learned from Steve Jobs: 8 Leadership Insights

It’s hard to read 600 pages and incorporate all the learnings stemming from Steve Jobs and Walter Isaacson‘s portrayal of this unique individual.
In this last chapter I want to emphasize a few ideas raised earlier and add a few more.

It’s my intention that you too can prosper because of these learnings and apply to your business or firm. In my readings of great leaders in the past and Peak Performance, one does not re-invent the wheel but rather people become inspired by an idea of others.

We discover that these seemingly new ideas were rather universal truths that come back to light over and over again.
Some may claim that they’ve come up with a Eureka moment idea but trust me; it is an idea that has been re-hashed in the last 5 years, the last decade or the last centuries.

However let’s not kill inspiration. If an idea from Socrates or Steve Jobs illuminates you, that’s what matters, regardless of who takes credit for it.

Here is what I believe are Steve Jobs’s eight Leadership insights:

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1) Focus
Jobs taught us to focus. You don’t need to be a Zen student to understand the merits of focusing. With an ever increasing pace in our lives such as work demands, family needs, social media, emails, constant interruptions, earning a decent income and a faster lifestyle, taking time to stop – think – and focus is imperative. That is true today as it was 50 years ago as it will be in the next 50 years to come. Jobs had a laser like ability to focus.

2) Reality distortion field 

Jobs’s “Reality distortion field’ was his way of not accepting any compromise and this pushed people to their limits.
I often ask my Coaching clients if they think that their direct reports are busy enough or overwhelmed, since it’s human nature to think that our staff are as busy as we are. Not always true. Jobs pushed and he pushed hard.

Ask yourself: Am I pushing hard enough? If the staff is not complaining, what does that tell you?

3) Recalibrate

Despite Jobs’s tyrannical mannerisms and stubbornness, he did at some key moments recognize that he needed to shift his strategy that is, recalibrate and collaborate. There’s an interesting passage where despite Apple’s law suits with Microsoft and Jobs’s conviction that he would win, this would have required time and money for lawyers and Apple would probably have not survived financially over time to win these law suits.

The solution: If you can’t beat them, join them! Jobs called Gates in the heat of these law suits and asked for help!

Jobs told Gates: “I want a commitment and an investment. The law suits were dropped and Microsoft would be investing $150 USD million in Apple and getting non-voting shares.”

Every great leader needs to own the ‘strategy‘ piece and at times that may require some recalibration. Jobs proved that at very unique moments in Apple’s journey to success, it’s OK to be flexible and adjust the strategy.

4) Piracy

No matter how competitive Jobs was, he was against stealing software or Intellectual Property. When Warner Music and AOL Time Warner came to Jobs for help with piracy services such as Napster and Kazaa, Jobs quickly realized that the music industry was clueless about technology.

Instead of ridiculing them Jobs saw an opportunity to help and he also fundamentally believed in the following: “If  people copied or stole our software, we’d be out of business.  If it weren’t protected there’d be no incentive for us to make new software or product designs. Jobs really liked music.  He added: It’s wrong to steal. It hurts other people. And it hurts your own character .”

5) Cannibalization

As business grows it becomes common to talk about target markets and footprint and how many restaurants or products can we penetrate in a particular market. Then the issue of cannibalizing your own product ensues; debates follow and no one really feels good about making any decision.  How many times have you seen a Starbucks coffee shop at opposing ends of a busy intersection?

Jobs had a simple view on cannibalization.
“One of Jobs’s business rules was to never be afraid of cannibalizing yourself. ‘If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.’ So even though an iPhone might cannibalize sales of an iPod, or an iPad may cannibalize sales of a laptop that did not deter him”.

I agree.  One of my clients has 7 restaurant brands and in one area, two restaurant brands are within 100 meters of each other.  We’ve discovered after opening the newer brand, it had almost no effect on the revenues of the other established restaurant.

6) Obsession with money

As we identified earlier Jobs was not philanthropic. Despite Apple’s success Jobs never really cared much about money. His views were that he grew up middle class, west coast’ and his parents made enough money to makes end meet’ and that was fine for him.  Living as a hippie for many years validates this point. True, in the latter part of his life he did have a mansion and a summer home but Jobs did not equate these to success.

It would take him months to decide on buying a sofa for his living room because he just couldn’t understand the usefulness of a sofa!!
It’s hard to believe but here I think that Jobs had a similar lifestyle as Warren Buffet and Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA when it came to money matters. All very wealthy but money was secondary to their personal lives.

7) Leading people

There’s an interesting and very emotional passage at the end of Jobs’s life when he asked Ann Bowers an unusual question. ‘Ann Bowers was the widow of Intel’s cofounder Bob Noyce. She had been Apple’s HR Director and den mother in the early 80’s, in charge or reprimanding Jobs after his tantrums and tending to the wounds of his coworkers.

Jobs asked her: “Tell me; what was I like was when I was young “.’

Bowers was floored.

She tried to give an honest answer and said:  ‘You were very impetuous and very difficult. But your vision was compelling. You told us: “The journey is the reward.” That turned out to be true.’

If I can summarize, The journey is the reward” is Jobs’s achievements in life and in business and this was the statement that glued the company and the people to ‘forge on’.

It’s a time tested expression that says that you don’t need to look at the end result as success per se, but rather you should enjoy the road to success.
Don’t feel good about the fact that ‘you’ve arrived’ but rather ‘you should always be arriving’ to success – hence the journey.

I could not agree more and this is the kind of influence Jobs had.

8) Building shareholder value

Jobs’s incessant focus on design, simplicity, perfection and his tendency to not to worry about the next quarter’s results have translated into significant shareholder value over the years. How much?

To quote Isaacson on the difference between Microsoft and Apple in the last 40 years:
“Even with a small market share Apple was able to maintain a huge profit margin while other computer makers were commoditized. In 2010, Apple had only 7% of the revenue of the personal computer market but it grabbed 35% of the operating profit.
Jobs’s insistence on end-to-end integration worked. In May 2000 Apple’s market value was one twentieth that of Microsoft. In May 2010 Apple surpassed Microsoft as the world’s most profitable technology company and by September 2011 it was worth 70% more than Microsoft. 

In Q1 2011, the market for Windows PCs shrank by 1% while the market for Macs grew by 28%.”
This indeed, is called shareholder value!


‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’
The idea of never compromising, gaining market share with a few well thought, designed products and maintaining a rigorous end-to-end integration of software and hardware has made Apple not only a cherished and aspirational brand but has commanded tremendous might in terms of brand equity and brand valuation.

With the help of countless mentors, friends, associates, colleagues, employees and others like Makkula and his ‘Apple Marketing Philosophy’, this has had enduring benefits for Jobs and for Apple. Jobs had a simple strategy and it worked. He believed in getting nothing but “A” players and he made no excuses for mediocre performers.

One could look at the Bill Gates’s model and the Jobs’s model and wonder who won in the end? In one of his last discussions with Bill Gates, Jobs was humble with his one-time friend and enemy.

Gates said: “I used to believe that the open horizontal model would prevail …but you proved that integrated, vertical model could be great Steve.” 

Jobs responded by his own admission: “Your model worked too” he said.

There you have it – 2 leaders with opposing views of the market, yet successful in both camps.

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In the end does it really matter who was right? What does matter is having a strategy and philosophy; sticking to it and executing it and this has created what Apple is today…a brilliant execution of a long term strategy and philosophy.

What lies next for Apple without its ruthless, design crazy pioneer? Can it sustain its dominance, its cult, its culture and continue to win the hearts and minds of its customers?

One thing is certain; Apple has to sustain this momentum without a leader called ‘Steve’.


Source: Excerpts used from: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, 2013, Simon & Schuster

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