What I’ve learned from Steve Jobs: The man

Walter Isaacson wrote a masterpiece biography on Steve Jobs. I am disappointed that I didn’t discover it sooner.

The book seduced me and I ended up studying it rather than reading it. I always take copious notes and my books have so many dog ears and scribbles one would wonder where they’ve been. Because of what I do I’m always looking to be inspired and to find good books  & knowledge to in turn,  inspire my clients and audiences by highlighting a skill, values,  tips or concepts that can help others improve their lives or their businesses.


Isaacson is a skilled writer. He wrote the biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein and now Jobs. He’s a journalist by trade, was the managing Editor of Time Magazine and former CEO of CNN. The man can write, which makes a lot of us amateur book writers remain in awe as we devour what he has prepared. With Isaacson’s permission, I will highlight what I deem relevant for coaches, Entrepreneurs and Marketers.

I cannot summarize 600 pages in 1 post so I will attempt in the next four articles to summarize key passages in the following manner:

  • Steve Jobs –  the man;
  • His strategy;
  • His execution style and lastly,
  • 8 leadership insights to learn from this amazing fellow. These posts are a bit longer than the average but hopefully I can entertain you at the same time.

This first article looks at Steve Jobs, in terms of the extraordinary and complicated person that he was. Through ad hoc articles, I had heard that Jobs was not a pleasant person…I was right. Here is a compilation of descriptors used throughout the book stemming from more than 40 interviews with Jobs and more than 100 interviews with his stakeholders; people that were touched by Jobs that is, friends, relatives, co-workers, partners, competitors and enemies. I quote:

Jobs was arrogant, prickly, uncaring,  a Hippie with body odor (BO), pathological, impatient, uncaring, obnoxious, selfish, disloyal, lousy father, persistent, selfish, manipulator, cold, brutal, ruthless, lack of tact and unromantic.


Unlike Bill Gates he was not philanthropic. Jobs would belittle his staff; he had this perverse eagerness to put people down and humiliate them by showing that he was smarter. In some moments he could tear you up in front of your peers and moments later, lift you up.

Was he a liar? Well Isaacson would say that ‘Jobs was a lot like Kissinger: he lies not because it’s in his interest; he lies because it’s in his nature. Jobs’s nature was to mislead or be secretive when he felt it was warranted – he avoided the truth’. Would this qualify as lying I wonder?

Steve would not share the limelight. All ideas were his or even after hearing his employees‘ ideas. He would not acknowledge the idea; he would think about it for a few days and later come back to say that he had a great idea. Few staff would challenge this injustice and even those that did, Jobs would brush it off.

At times we would be charming to the people he hated and insulting to the people he liked. Some would say that he had no integrity whatsoever.

In meetings he had some annoying mannerisms such as biting his nails, being fidgety in his chair and waving his hands in motion all the time in addition to hogging the white board.

On the positive side, Jobs was creative, charismatic, inspiring, convincing, persistent, salesman and spiritual. He would hypnotize people with his powerful stare when wanting to make a point in order to see who would blink first. According to Jony Ive, Head of Design, ‘Jobs had an amazing ability to focus; set priorities; aim his laser attention on them and filter out distraction’. Jobs attributed his ability to focus and his love of simplicity to his Zen training

Right now you’re probably thinking why would anybody work for this guy? Was he Bi-polar? Did he have Narcissistic Personality Disorder? It would appear not to be the case. He was consumed with creation. Creation was his reason for living. Some say he was a genius.

The book often refers to Steve’s ‘Reality distortion field’ which in a few words describes what Jobs expected from everyone: What he conceived, his team had to design, manufacture and deliver no matter how impossible this seemed. In most cases this distortion field turned out impressive results. He would push people to grueling limits – a point where even they never thought possible, yet they became stunned and shocked at how much they accomplished with Jobs’s intensity. In some perverse, weird way they grew from this punishment.

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To quote one early Mac team manager who took over Apple manufacturing, she said: “He would shout at a meeting, ‘You ass***e, you never do anything right’. It was like a weekly recurrence, yet I consider myself the absolute luckiest person in the world to have worked with him.

Jobs’s point of view on this kind of behavior? ‘We are brutally honest with each other and that’s the type of culture I tried to create…we’ve had some rip-roaring arguments where we are yelling at each other and it’s some of the best times I’ve ever had.‘

Is this starting to make sense? Now I’m thinking…was I too nice with my staff in the past?

Perhaps some of the magic (and torture) of working with Jobs stems from one of his basic beliefs: ‘Never compromise’. In this area Jobs was consistent. He chose the best possible people to work on his team and would call them “A” players and he would not tolerate ‘B’ or ‘C’ players. With staff he would tell them point blank: ‘You know what… you’re a ‘B’ player and there’s no room on my team for someone like you’. Jobs would rationalize that you need to be ruthless if you want to hire “A” players.


Just to mess up your head even more, Jobs would take contrary positions to create more discussion. This according to him led to better results.

He was obsessed with design – both for the product and its packaging, simplicity and he craved perfection. One wonders if all this came from Jobs’s interest in Buddhism, his obsessive dietary (vegetarian) eating habits, such as eating only apples for weeks followed by fasting for one entire week or the fact that he was often tripping on LSD during his hippie days.

Family wise, Jobs had 2 sets of parents – biological and adoptive. He loved his adoptive parents and he was taught the essentials of manual labor since his father was handy at repairing and restoring cars – an area of interest where Jobs could see the result of hard and attention to details. Jobs found much later in life his mother and sister – he had no motivation to track down his natural father.

By serendipity however Jobs frequented a local restaurant and recognized the owner, a  Syrian man. Both would never discover that they were father and son.  ‘When Steve was the same age of his biological father had been when he abandoned him, Jobs would father and abandon a child of his own.’

After marriage and having 3 children, Jobs focused on work even in the last months of his life. His passion for the business it appears would not abate.

Despite his complicated personality Jobs was magnetic. In all of his MacWorld addresses, he was a show man – before and after confirming his position as CEO while proving that it’s OK to be fired from the company you founded.

He came back with vigor and was able to prove that ‘Thinking different‘ had sustainable advantages. His followers remained loyal even upon hearing of his death on Oct 5, 2011 as impromptu shrines in hundreds of cities and villages were created.

The man who made unique products was revered by many, hated by some and not fully understood by many loyal staff members.

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

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