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A Leadership Lesson from Steve Jobs of Apple: Even the Best Aren't Perfect

July 21, 2010

There is a reason Fortune magazine has ranked Apple the Most Admired Company in the world for three years in a row, and Steve Jobs illustrated it last week.  The CEO of a Fortune 100 company stopped short his vacation to address a media frenzy and consumer concern that reached the front pages of newspapers around the world.  Coverage of the press conference on CNN.com exceeded that of the supposed fix to the BP oil spill leak.  In a sign of our times, Jobs’ “emergency press conference” in and of itself wasn’t really “news” in the sense that it wasn’t new.

But this wasn’t a case of a sex scandal, a deadly car accelerator, or an oil spill.  This was a not-quite-perfect new antenna design…and the product in question was still on pace to sell nearly 10 million units (three million in the first three weeks) amongst a collection of favorable reviews.  The biggest one, from Consumer Reports, came with a negative qualifier: the iPhone 4 is the best phone out there, “in part because it sports the sharpest display and best video camera we’ve seen on any phone,” but a perceived antenna defect is real (although they didn’t even catch it the first time).  So Steve Jobs addressed it.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZctdV9dZyE

And what did he have to say?  He told us that the company that he founded and built, the company that reflects his sense of morals, his dedication to his craft, and his absolute need to constantly get better…loves its customers and would do anything for them.  “We want to make all our users happy. If you don’t know that, you don’t know Apple.”  And interestingly enough, we do know Apple.  Maybe that’s their next product: the Apple iKnow, which predicts we’ll buy it even before we know it exists.

Some have said that the response came too late (it was only 3 weeks after the release of the product).  Conversely, some have criticized Jobs for responding too quickly because he said, “Just avoid holding it in that way” in an email to a disappointed customer.  (By the way, how many other Fortune 100 CEOs respond to personal emails from their average customer?)  Some will say that offering a stopgap fix isn’t enough, that the phone should be perfect.

To that, Jobs says, “We are not perfect – we want to make all our users happy,” the words across the screen of his presentation like a billboard across the country.  Apple might take a hit in the court of public opinion (some argue they should suffer more) because of the whole episode, but here’s why they deserve not to:

  1. Apple’s customers, and a need to please them, are the reason Apple is the most innovative company in the world.
  2. It is the most innovative company in the world, and an engineering issue/miscue/mistake doesn’t change that.
  3. An engineering issue/miscue/mistake was publicly addressed by the CEO, who explains what the issue is, why it happened, and how they want to make it right.
  4. They don’t have to do any of this, but they do it because they love their customers.  And their customers, and a need to please them, are the reason they are the most innovative company in the world.

This cycle is why iMacs, iPods, iPhones, iPads, iTunes, and i-Everythings are so popular.  In an on-demand (heck, even a pre-demand) world, Apple is more responsive and more ahead of the curve than any other organization out there.  I’m a big Simon Sinek fan, and the golden picture he paints of Apple is spot on.  His mantra is “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”  We know WHY Apple makes great products, and that’s why buy them.  According to Sinek, Apple might as well tell us, “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo.  We believe in thinking differently.  The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly.”  Steve Jobs just reinforced that message on Friday.

He showed us today that he believes in the strategy, direction, and value of his company, he trusts the integrity of his colleagues, and he isn’t as arrogant as he has been portrayed recently (though you could sense his frustration with some of the comments in the media and questions from the press).

Look, I understand that there may very well be a large PR machine behind Jobs’ words, but it doesn’t seem so, especially when his initial response was so brief.  As to his frustration with the situation – he feels the media has overblown it, it’s not a life-endangering issue, all the pluses outweigh the minuses, etc.  Why wouldn’t he feel that way?  The only reason this antenna doesn’t work perfectly (in apparently less than 1% of phones on the market) is that it’s never been done this way before.  Apple remains on the cutting edge.  Jobs has a right to deny the need for a recall.  This clearly isn’t as big a deal as, say, Toyota’s issue with faulty accelerators.

This is a man who believes in what he does and wants us to know that he will work for our business.  He cut short a vacation to address his customers’ concerns, quite the opposite of the infamous sailing trip by BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward…and it’s no argument which company was really facing a crisis.  (Even the President gets rebuked for vacationing during a crisis.) BP is responsible for the largest environmental disaster since the biblical floods and has faced a 50% loss in corporate value.  Apple’s sales are up, their stock price hasn’t suffered much (less than a 10% dip from its recent peak), and they haven’t killed any dolphins.  I think they’ll be okay.

Jobs is aware of the power of perception, and squashed rumors that he knew about the issue beforehand.  There might be some drama or lingering questions there (the supposed source hasn’t been made available for questioning), but Jobs’ statements illustrates Apples’ beliefs in their values – they are doing the right thing, want to do the right thing, and want their customers to feel like they are treated in the right way.  Ultimately, the supposed “design flaw” is the result of the most innovative and creative tool on the market today.  “Everybody at Apple wants to build a great phone, and we argue over what great is.”  Regarding Apple customers, Jobs said, “We’re going to do whatever it takes to make them happy, and if we can’t, we’ll give you a full refund, and try to win your business back next time.”  He had no apology to investors, but said, “I hope you trust us in the long run to keep innovating.”

Ultimately, Jobs made it clear Apple has retained their commitment to make a perfect phone, “That is the responsibility of a leader.”

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