In this thoughtful Harvard Business Review article, Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson asks us to see beyond Jobs’s legendary roughness with people and appreciate the leadership qualities that made him one of the most successful innovators of our time. “The essence of Jobs, I think, is that his personality was integral to his way of doing business,” says Isaacson. “He 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.” Here are Jobs’s deeper leadership qualities. How many of them apply to K-12 education?
• Focus. When Jobs returned to embattled Apple in 1997, the company was working on a random array of computers and peripherals, including a dozen different versions of the Macintosh. “Stop!” shouted Jobs at the end of a series of product-review meetings. “This is crazy.” He grabbed a Magic Marker, drew a grid on a whiteboard, and reset the company’s direction:
Desktop computer for consumers
Desktop computer for pros
Portable computer for consumers
Portable computer for pros
The company focused on making four computers, and all other projects were cancelled. This saved the company. From then on, Jobs hosted an annual brainstorming session with his “top 100” people. After much discussion, they would agree on the ten things Apple should be doing next – and then Jobs would cross off the bottom seven. “We can only do three,” he’d say.
• Simplify. Jobs zeroed in on the essence of each product and eliminated unnecessary components. He learned this playing Atari’s Star Trek game as a college dropout; the only instructions were: (1) Insert quarter, and (2) Avoid Klingons. “It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple,” he said, “to truly understand the underlying challenges and come up with elegant solutions.”
• Take responsibility end to end. Jobs insisted on integrating proprietary Apple products with each other for a smoother, simpler experience. He believed the more-open Microsoft and Google approach was a recipe for inferior products. “Sometimes it’s nice to be in the hands of a control freak,” says Isaacson.
• When you’re behind, leapfrog. At one point, PC users were ahead of Apple, downloading and swapping music and burning their own CDs. So Jobs created iTunes, the iTunes Store, and the iPod, blowing the competition out of the water. Then he cannibalized the iPod by integrating it into the iPhone.
• Put products before profits. Jobs’s instructions to the team designing the first Macintosh were to make it “insanely great.” “Don’t compromise,” he said. “Don’t worry about price, just specify the computer’s abilities.” At first, the Mac was too expensive, but ultimately, he believed, it “put a dent in the universe.” When a businessman (John Sculley) ran Apple from 1983 to 1993, the company declined. Jobs believes this was because sales and profits became the priority. When Jobs returned, he shifted the focus back to innovative products, and profits followed. [Could the analogy in education be focusing on test scores rather than on teaching and learning?]
• Don’t be a slave to focus groups. Jobs liked to quote Henry Ford: “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” “Instead of relying on market research,” says Isaacson, “[Jobs] honed his version of empathy – an intimate intuition about the desires of his customers.”
• Bend reality. The joke at Apple was that Jobs created a Reality Distortion Field, frequently pushing people to do the impossible. “It was a self-fulfilling distortion,” says Debi Coleman, a Mac team member who regularly stood up to Jobs. “You did the impossible because you didn’t realize it was impossible.”
• Impute. Jobs believed the packaging of Apple products was really important – opening up the box in which an iMac or iPhone arrived set the tone for the product itself. People really do judge a book by its cover, he believed.
• Push for perfection. With Pixar’s Toy Story and with several products, Jobs stopped the design process at the last moment and made major changes. Toy Story became less edgy, the case of the iPhone less masculine, and the iPad had its bottom edge rounded to make it easier to scoop up. Jobs even insisted that the innards of computers (inaccessible to customers) be aesthetically designed. He learned this lesson as a boy when he and his father were building a fence around their house. His father took just as much care on the part behind the house as on the part facing the street. “Nobody will ever know,” said Jobs. “But you will know,” replied his father.
• Tolerate only ‘A’ players. Jobs was tough on people around him because he wanted to prevent “the bozo explosion” – his term for what happens when managers are so polite that mediocre people feel comfortable sticking around. “I don’t run roughshod over people,” he said, “but if something sucks, I tell people to their face. It’s my job to be honest.” “Was all his stormy and abusive behavior necessary?” asks Isaacson. “Probably not. There were other ways he could have motivated his team.” But Jobs was who he was, and the rough edges came with passion and inspiration. Looking back, his colleagues at Apple believe the products would have been much less impressive if he had been nicer about mediocre performance, and very few of them left the company of their own accord. “I’ve learned over the years that when you have really good people, you don’t have to baby them,” said Jobs. “By expecting them to do great things, you can get them to do great things.”
• Engage face-to-face. Jobs hated formal presentations (“People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint,” he said) but loved freewheeling in-person weekly meetings, usually without an agenda. “Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions,” he said. “You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.” He insisted that the layout of the Pixar office building require people to encounter each other frequently in a central atrium.
• Know both the big picture and the details. Jobs grasped the overall strategy (the idea of the “cloud”, for example) as well as the minutest details of the iMac’s color and design.
• Combine the humanities with the sciences. Jobs saw himself standing at the intersection of these two fields. Other individuals were better technologists or better artists than he was. “But no one else in our era could better firewire together poetry and processors in a way that jolted innovation,” says Isaacson.
• Stay hungry, stay foolish. Jobs combined his hippie roots with the technocratic world of Silicon Valley, and as he became fabulously successful, he kept a foot in the world of his adolescence. “While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius,” he said. “Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
“The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson in Harvard Business Review, April 2012 (Vol. 90, #4, p. 92-102), e-link; there’s another article on leadership lessons from Jobs in Marshall Memo 401.