What are the real leadership lessons from Steve Jobs biography? CEO’s listen up!

The Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson is a masterpiece, albeit below par compared to Isaacson’s other biographies.  The book was published in November 2011, Steve Jobs, The Myndset Brand Strategy and Leadershiponly a month after the death of Steve Jobs (October 5, 2011), so timing was of the essence.  It must have sold somewhere well north of 3 million copies (I found a source citing 2.25MM sold by May 2012 here).  Among those 3+ million copies, a good number were presumably read by other CEOs and c-suite executives.  I can imagine not a few, like the character Clark (Nathan Lane) in “The Good Wife,” who try to adopt Steve Jobsian behavior.

As I was reading the book at the end of last year, I pondered what would have gone through the mind of CEOs as they read the book.

First, I considered what was the motivation to read the book?  How did the CEO interpret it?  What are the real lessons to be derived?

Morbid curiosity or hunger to learn?

  • Was it a morbid curiosity to want to know the innards of a man who was brazen enough to bare the darker side of his personality in the last  months of his life?
  • Was it a thirst to know the genius and/or the magic behind the success?
  • Was it just to stay up with the Jones’ by reading a book that has been on the best seller list basically ever since it came out?

How does a CEO interpret the biography?

  • They read it with a legitimate hope to soak up any and every kernel of insight.
  • They read it thinking that they do parts of what Jobs did, but not at all as horribly.
  • They read with admirable distance, saying that they are completely different from the Jobs model.
  • They read and find the book a great justification for being the horrible person that they are at work. 

What are the real leadership lessons?

Isaacson wrote a most interesting HBR article in which he describes the key leadership lessons and take-aways.  I tend to disagree with a few of the points Isaacson identifies, because they are not all so easily reproducible or applicable to other situations or cultures.  I also do not subscribe so heavily to the “product first” philosophy that Isaacson highlights on a couple of occasions, i.e. when he writes about putting products before profits.  Independent of whatever the motivations for reading the book, here are my four main takeaways that I believe any CEO should truly take away from this biography.

  1. Purpose / Mission.  What is the meta mission of your company that will corral the energies of the employees and key stakeholders?  As Steve Jobs once famously said to John Sculley, the then President of PepsiCo, to woo him over: “Do you want to spend your life selling sugar water or do you want to change the world?”  Isaacson writes in the book how Steve Jobs truly inhabited his mission: “..the world will be a better place with Apple in it.” (Isaacson, W. 2011. Steve Jobs, Little, Brown, p. 304)   However, it is not enough just to have the mission written on the wall.  It must be lived by the CEO and then filtered down through the organization.  In my mind, this is the big legacy of Steve Jobs.    
  2. The art of combining humanities and science.  As Isaacson wrote about Steve Jobs,  “… I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”  Daniel Pink’s book about The Whole New Mind wonderfully characterizes the need to balance the so-called right and left brains.  It is not without a little chuckle that I note that Steve Jobs claimed to have empathy.  If he did, it was an empathy dissociated from human sentiment!  Jobs apparently embraced  three principles that his early mentor Mark Markkula set out: empathy, focus and imputation (aka the value of the first impression).
  3. just say no, The Myndset Digital Marketing and Brand StrategyThe ability to just say no.  In a world of plethoric choices, finite resources and steep competition, the ability to stay focused, simple and obsessively user centric is entirely linked to a bold conviction to refuse the easier “yes.”  One of the great ideas, which can also help to galvanize an organization around the customer was the notion of a single P&L, focused around the user experience.  “‘We don’t have divisions with their own P&L,’ said Tim Cook.  ‘We run one P&L for the company.'” [Isaacson, page 408]  In this way, Jobs allowed innovation be unfettered from the fear of cannibilization.
  4. I finish with the one area where Steve Jobs and his legacy failed: his succession.  His management ethic and style is just not reproducible.  Related in part to his genius, but also the fact that he was the founder and, therefore, lived and breathed his own ethos and mission — as well as the products — he created an empire that cannot continue, at least not with the success it had under his reign.  There are three types of companies I like to compare: the family company run by the founder, the privately held company and the corporate [publicly traded] company run by suits.   If succession planning is difficult in pretty much any business, replacing the founder is like passing through a vortex.  It is my external observation that the vacuum left behind Steve Jobs is decidedly too big to manage for Cook, as brilliant as he may be.

Time will tell.  How did you read the book?  How do you think CEO’s read it?  Open to your remarks, as always!

  • yendi

    Every conversation around this book triggers diverse remaks, in many directions. Some managers and leaders sincerely believe they share some of his qualities, others have learnt other aspects of Apple's business to ponder on the power of one leader balancing with the many geniuses who feed the machine with their different talents. Definitely a book of conversations.

  • David

    To me the Steve Jobs/Apple story is all about the individual and not the role. His success seemed to come from obsessive compulsive behaviour channelled (most of the time) towards positive outcomes. However all this comes at a high price if you consider the trail of broken or damaged people along the way.

    I think the proof of this becomes clear when you look at his Management legacy. As you rightly point out there was no succession plan.

  • OCC

    I read and retweeted. Remarkable recap of a complex personality. I appreciated particularly the distinction you make about Jobs' empathy! Empathy, yes, but without real humanity!

  • http://twitter.com/mdial @mdial

    @David: It is never really outright stated, but he does seem to have had a true personality disorder that, as you say, comes with a high price. I heard recently that being rude or uncivil at work has a direct effect on the bottom line… Words to live by.

    @OCC, thanks for coming. Empthay without humanity is a foreign concept, no?

  • Jerome D

    Excellent post, as I share very much your point of view.

    Amusing for me, since I offered the book to 15 people… I wonder how they read it?

    • http://themyndset.com Minter Dial

      Hopefully a few will come and relate their experience @Jerome

  • http://www.fadasocialagency.com damiendouani

    Really interesting post, thx Minter.

    Some feedbacks : I agree with you on your 3 first points. The fourth one is "too easy", I mean we don't know yet if SJ failed in his legacy or not. From my point of view, SJ would have failed if (and only if) Apple's board wants to be Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs legacy is not a brand positionning, it's a method. A method and a process to make best ideas happen. Johnny Ive knows that. What about Tim Cook ?

    And I suggest a fifth point : the first danger Apple has to avoid today is to be "eaten" from inside by its shareholders. Jobs told us "If you trust my vision, Apple products will be a success and the price of your options will raise. So trust me and leave me alone". Cook don't seems to be on the same line, unfortunatelly… cf Dell…

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