6 Key Leadership Lessons From Steve Jobs

Find out 6 key leadership lessons from the father of modern technology, Steve Jobs.

Updated 28 Sep 2018

6 Key Leadership Lessons From Steve Jobs - Feature-Image

A few months before Steve Jobs passed away, I received a book from publisher McGraw-Hill on Jobs by communications coach Carmine Gallo. I started recollecting the “Think Different” Apple ad campaign. The ad was the starting point in Jobs’ revival of a company he founded, was fired from and later brought back to turn it around.

The ad was memorable because it was essentially about Jobs’ leadership and his desire to “change the world.” The copy of the ad, read by Richard Dreyfuss, goes like this:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. And the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do.

This campaign featured Thomas Edison, Einstein, Gandhi, Amelia Earheart and other Apple heroes. Jobs explained that “you can tell a lot about a person by who his or her heroes are” and his role models were people who “changed the world”.

Steve Jobs Leadership-01

Jobs was “the most successful CEO” according to Jack Welch, as he reshaped the computer, entertainment, music, telecommunications and the book industries. Born to Joanne Schieble and Abdul Fattah Jandali, a Syrian, he was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs who promised his biological parents that they would send Jobs to college. Jobs did go to Reed College but dropped out after one semester.

Although he dropped out, he continued attending classes he was passionate about. He worked briefly at Hewlett-Packard where he met Steve Wozniak, who would later co-found Apple with him, and then took a job with Atari to save money to go to India to “find himself”.

He travelled to India and came back a Buddhist with his head shaved and wearing traditional Indian clothing. Jobs began that trip wanting to “change the world” but he did not know how. During his time in India, he realised that “maybe Thomas Edison did a lot more to improve the world than Karl Marx or Neem Karolie Baba put together”. His trip to India convinced him that his purpose on earth was “to put a dent in the universe” through innovation like his great role model Thomas Edison.

Studying Jobs' leadership, I uncovered that he, like Mandela, Gandhi, Napoleon, Welch and other great leaders, began their leadership journey in silent retreat “finding themselves and their passion”. In fact, interestingly, I found six key steps which enable all great leaders across time to “put a dent in the universe”.

The steps are as follows:

#1. Finding yourself and your passion

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.” Jobs then went to India to spend time with the surroundings and the Creator while discovering his “calling.” In fact, Jobs, in an interview with the Smithsonian, postulates:

“I think you should go get a job as a busboy or something until you find something you are really passionate about. I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure PERSEVERANCE. It is so hard.

There are such rough moments that I think most people give up. Unless you have a lot of passion, you’re not going to survive. You’re going to give up. So, you’ve got to have an idea, or a problem or a wrong that you want to right that you are passionate about, otherwise you are not going to have the perseverance to stick it through. I think that’s half the battle right there.”

And he was right. You have got to find what you love and are passionate about first.

#2. Define your vision of a better tomorrow

Jobs always sees a future with possibilities. He looks beyond today and sees something better in everything. He saw computers as much more than dreary productivity tools. He saw the MP3 player as more than a Walkman.

On the iPhone, he remarked, “We all had cell phones. We just hated them, they were so awful to use. The software was terrible. The hardware wasn’t very good,” and so he challenged his team, “Let’s make a great phone that we fall in love with. We’re going to do it. Let’s try.” It was the same with the iPad. Jobs had a way of seeing a greater future.

In Gallo’s book, he cited a story where Jobs was recruiting a top talent to Apple 30 years ago. This talent asked, “What is your vision for the personal computer?” For the next hour, Jobs painted a picture of how personal computers were going to change the world. He weaved his vision of how it would change everything from work, education, entertainment and everything. After hearing Jobs’ vision, he immediately signed up to work at Apple, a small start-up then.

Great leaders have vision. According to former Apple leader Trip Hawkins, “Steve has the power of vision that is almost frightening. When Steve believes in something, the power of that vision can literally sweep aside any objections or problems.”

#3. Articulate the vision

One of the key leadership lessons Jobs internalised is the CEO’s role as company evangelist and vision spokesperson. Leaders can dream big visions, but can they articulate that vision ensuring it’s appealing, vibrant and gripping? How did Jobs message his vision so perfectly?

Firstly, he was passionate about the vision and his energy flowed from this passion. More importantly, he spent hours practising and preparing, ensuring his vision was fully understood. A Business Week article notes that Jobs’ articulation of his vision “comes only after gruelling hours of practice.” And he communicates by simply allowing you to visualise the vision. Most leaders have visions but the problem is they don’t communicate that vision effectively.

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#4. Mobilising people to execute the vision

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

Similarly, Martin Luther King and Gandhi did not develop followers just by their inspiring speeches. Instead, they spent the greater part bonding, building coalitions and connecting with communities one person at a time. Their powerful agenda moved forward as they mobilised people together on a personal level. Great leaders have powerful one-on-one dialogues mobilising people to their cause.

#5. Focusing on the journey

Steve Jobs Leadership-02

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. He said, “the people who are doing the work are the moving force behind Apple. My job is to create a space for them, to clear out the rest of the organisation and keep it at bay.” He ensured that he removed hindrances from the focus. Focusing on the most important issues means you have to say “NO” to 1,000 things including distractions, which is difficult to do.

Jobs adds, “Apple is a US$30bil company, yet we’ve got less than 30 major products. The great consumer electronics companies of the past had thousands of products. We tend to focus much more. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”

Jobs was clearly focused on a few key items that will truly “make a dent in the universe” adding “I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.” Likewise, we too can learn to prioritise and focus on truly value-added vision-related activity.

#6. Execute flawlessly

It’s easy to execute on your vision when things go well. Usually, things never go to plan. Jobs recalled, “at Pixar making Toy Story, there came a time when we were forced to admit that the story wasn’t great. We stopped production for five months”. At Pixar, there was a “story crisis” for every film. And at Apple, according to Jobs, there was a crisis for almost every single major project or product.

But executing flawlessly means overcoming these challenges and tribulations through discipline, as he claimed, “To turn really interesting ideas and fledgeling technologies into a company that can continue to innovate for years, it requires a lot of discipline.”

Every Monday, Jobs has a marathon “process” meeting with his team. He says, “what we do every Monday is we review the whole business. And we do it every single week.” Ram Charan, a famous business guru whom I interviewed recently on the Leaderonomics Show wrote a book on execution. The key message is the same as Jobs’ – execution is boring and tedious and repetitive. But it’s this rigour that ultimately enables organisations to be successful. Jobs understood the power of ruthless execution.

Finally, 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.

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.” No one says leadership is easy but it is definitely worth the journey.

This article is written by Roshan Thiran and was originally published on Leaderonomics.

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