Leadership Lessons from Steve Jobs

Leadership Lessons from Steve Jobs

Apple’s attention to its brand, its mission, the quality of its products, its willingness to go the extra mile to deliver more useful technologies are examples to companies all over the word.

In the mid of 1982 after the end of a presentation to the Mac Team (the team that was building the original Macintosh computer), someone asked Steve Jobs whether he thought they should do some market research to see what customers wanted. “No,” he replied, “Because customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them.” Then he pulled out a device that was about the size of a desk diary. “Do you want to see something neat?” When he flipped it open, it turned out to be a mockup of a computer that could fit on your lap, with a keyboard and screen hinged together like a notebook. “This is my dream of what we will be making in the mid-to late eighties,” he said. They were building a company that would invent the future.

A similar question was asked by a reporter on the day Macintosh was unveiled. Jobs responded by scoffing, “Did Alexander Graham Bell do any market research before he invented the telephone?”

That is Steve Jobs. “Who acted as if the normal rules didn’t apply to him, and the passion, intensity and extreme emotionalism he brought to everyday life were things he also poured into the products he made. His petulance and impatience were part and parcel of his perfectionism” – Walter Isaacson.

Steve Jobs cofounded Apple in his parents’ garage in 1976, was ousted in 1985, returned to rescue it from near bankruptcy in 1997, and by the time he died, in October 2011, had built it into the world’s most valuable company. Along the way he helped to transform seven industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, retail stores, and digital publishing.

Every journey will require overcoming obstacles. At 21, Jobs was the charismatic boy wonder who co-founded Apple. He was worth US$200mil by 25, but was thrown out of the company he founded by age 30. Jobs lost everything when he was kicked out of Apple and could easily have given up and thrown in the towel. But he started all over again with NeXT and Pixar not losing his passion.

In this article I am trying to highlight some leadership lessons we have learned from Steve Jobs from his Biography written by Walter Isaacson.

Always follow your own heart

Jobs dropped out of college, disappointing his parents in the process. But he was always curious claiming, “the minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.” He attended a calligraphy class because he was passionate about typefaces even though he knew that this class had no “hope of any practical application in my life.” Yet 10 years later, this calligraphy class was the reason that the Macintosh had beautiful typography.

Jobs believed his philosophy of following his heart was a key part of leadership adding “you must have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

One of the investors, Perot, spun Steve Jobs’ life story at the National Press Club in Washington. “so poor he couldn’t afford to go to college, working in his garage at night, playing with computer chips, which was his hobby, and his dad comes in one day and said, “Steve, either make something you can sell or go get a job.” Sixty days later, in a wooden box that his dad made for him, the first Apple computer was created. And this high school graduate literally changed the world.”


He was willing to start over

Steve Jobs didn’t invent many things outright, but he was a master at putting together ideas, art, and technology in ways that invented the future.

He designed the Mac after appreciating the power of graphical interfaces in a way that Xerox was unable to do, and he created the iPod after grasping the joy of having a thousand songs in your pocket in a way that Sony, which had all the assets and heritage, never could accomplish. Some leaders push innovations by being good at the big picture. Others do so by mastering details. Jobs did both, relentlessly. As a result he launched a series of products over three decades that transformed whole industries.

Jobs started from scratch when he came back to Apple and made it bigger and better than it was before. The iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad fundamentally changed multiple industries and serve as prime examples of Jobs’ willingness to throw out the rules and start over.

His willingness to start over, and consistently roll the dice for something bigger and better, is one of the reasons Apple’s products are so successful. He would come within weeks or days of pulling the trigger on a new product design or idea and decide it wasn’t exactly right and throw it away.


It is product not profit which is most important

Whenever Jobs designed a new product he never spoke of the profit or cost, but his injunction was to make the product “insanely great”.  “Don’t worry about the price, just specify the computer’s abilities” Jobs told to his original team leader when they were designing the original Macintosh computer in early 1980s.

When Jobs left the company in 1983, Apple was run by John Sculley, a Marketing and sales executive from Pepsi, for 10 years. He focused more on profit and Apple gradually declined. “I have my own theory about why decline happens at companies” Jobs told to Walter Isaacson: They make some great products, but then the sales and marketing people take over the company, because they are the ones who can juice up profits, “When the sales guys run the company, the product guys don’t matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off. It happened at Apple when Sculley came in, which was my fault, and it happened when Ballmer took over at Microsoft”.



Jobs seemed to be all over the place with so many new ideas and innovative products. Yet, he was extremely focused and clear where his journey required him to go.

When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, it was producing a random number of products, including printers, cartridges, dozen number of Macintosh etc.  Jobs shutdown some of its product lines and was only focusing on four computers; Desktop computers for consumers and professional, portable computers for consumers and professionals.  “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do” he told to Isaacson. “That’s true for companies and its true for products”.

Near the end his life, Jobs was visited at home by Larry Page, who was about to take control of Google. He asked if he could get tips on how to be a good CEO. Even though their companies were feuding, Jobs was willing to give some advice. “The main thing I stressed was focus”, he recalled. Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up, he told Page. “It’s now all over the map. What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of rest, because they are dragging you down.” Page followed the advice. In January 2012 he told employees to focus on just a few priorities, such as Android and Google+, and to make them “beautiful”, the way Jobs would have done.



“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” Steve Jobs.

Jobs aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering, rather than merely ignoring, complexity. Achieving this depth of simplicity, he realized, would produce a machine that felts as if it deferred to users in a friendly way, rather than challenging them. “It takes a lot of hard work,” he said, “to make something simple, to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.”

When Jobs was shown a cluttered set of proposed navigation screen of iDVD, which allowed users to burn video onto a disk, he jumped up and drew a simple rectangle on a whiteboard. “Here is the application” he said. “It’s got one window. You drag your video into the window. Then you click the button that says ‘Burn’. That’s it. That’s what we’re going to make”.

Not only did he believe in simplicity when it came to the products he created, but he also fought for it in his business dealings. When presented with a 125-page contract from IBM, he refused to even read it. He asked IBM to send a simpler contract, which the company did in a few days.

You work so hard to sign a new customer. Make sure the paperwork or process isn’t so confusing that it actually gets in the way of moving a deal forward.


Tolerate only ‘A’ grade Players

A big part about Jobs’ leadership is his ability to hire people who are “inspired to make the dream a reality”. Ultimately, people are the key to success as no single idea Jobs had would have been successful had not others joined his crusade.

Jobs was famously impatient, petulant, and tough with the people around him. But his treatment of people emanated from his passion for perfection and his desire to work with only best players.

Was his stormy and abusive behavior necessary? Probably not. There were other ways he could have motivated his team. “Steve’s contributions could have been made without so many stories about him terrorizing folks”. Apple’s cofounder Wozniak said. “I like being more patient and not having so many conflicts. I think a company can be a good family”. But then he added something that is undeniably true: “if the Macintosh project had been run my way, things probably would have been a mess”.

“I have learned over the years that when you have really good people, you don’t have to baby them. By expecting them to do great things, you can get them to do great things. Ask any member of the Mac team. They will tell you it was worth the pain.” Jobs told to Isaacson.

“Yet I consider myself the absolute luckiest person in the world to have worked with him.” Debi Coleman recalls.

Leadership is never an easy journey. It is hard work and filled with challenges. Before his death, Jobs said “remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”