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Leadership lessons from the late Steve Jobs

January 2, 2013

By the Linkage Editorial Team

Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson recently took part in Linkage’s Thought Leader Series, where he shared more about the legendary leadership style of the late CEO of Apple, Inc. during the question and answer period following his presentation.

Linkage: Walter, based on your knowledge of Steve Jobs’ life and what made him a successful leader, what three pieces of leadership advice would you offer?

Walter Isaacson: I have three pieces of advice and one note of caution. The first piece of advice is to always be passionate about the products you make. Whether they are products or services or anything else, really care about making them good because a lot of times….we say to ourselves, this product or the service might make us some money as opposed to providing real value to people. And I say that not just because you’re supposed to be thinking of more than just yourself. It’s because if you want to be successful in the long run, it helps to be making things of value that people will become emotionally attached to.

Secondly, focus is important. Steve always was able to focus on two or three really important things. When he went back to Apple in 1997, they’d decided to milk the Macintosh computer line for as much profit as they could. So, they were making all sorts of versions of it for different distribution chains, different stores. There might be a 3600C and a 3600X and a 4600—and he said, “What are all these models?” And they said, “Well, here’s why each one helps us profit a little bit.”

And finally he said, “Wait a minute. We’ve got to focus.” And he just drew a little grid of four squares. He put home, office, laptop, desktop. He said that’s it, for computers. And that’s why you have the laptop for the professional, the laptop for the home, and the same with the desktops.

Then, they were saying, ‘Okay now, we should branch out,’ so he decided to have a retreat for his top 100 people. And they are all making suggestions about what they could be doing next and new things. And they had 100 suggestions and they all fight to get on that first page of the whiteboard that Steve is managing. And finally, he has 10 things on the whiteboard that were the top ones they suggested. And he takes a marker and he crosses out the bottom seven. And he says, “Remember, focus. We can only focus. We can only focus on three.” And they end up with the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. It was that ability to focus that was the second great thing about Steve.

Also, I think simplicity. He really did believe that beauty came from simplicity and that beauty mattered. If you look at other products in the computer field, especially personal computers, and even now, on different types of devices, they tend to be commodities. They were beige boxes and they were kind of junkie.

Steve realized that if you connect beauty to technology, you will have something that’s not a commodity where people are just choosing between an HP and a Compaq and a Dell and an IBM PC or whatever; based on price. They were choosing something because they had an emotional connection to it. So that was very important to him.

The cautionary lesson is: He was a tough person. He was often unkind. It was part of his passion, part of the passion for perfection that was connected to his products. It made him impatient. It made him petulant. The question I add in studying Steve and the question people have sometimes for me when they read the biography is: Did he have to be so tough on people? Did he have to be so unkind at times? Did he have to be a jerk as he sometimes, not always, was?

And you can argue well, he drove people crazy because he was such a _______, but he also drove them to do great things…he would say… “Somebody’s got to just be brutally honest and tell people the truth otherwise your company will be larded with mediocre people, ‘B’ players, when you really just want ‘A’ players who can take the heat.”

What do you think of Jobs’ legacy? Did he do more than just change the way companies lead and innovate and produce products?

More information

Linkage’s Thought Leader Series is a convenient and cost-effective way to bring world-renowned thought leaders right into your organization. These 90-minute live broadcasts include an interactive Q&A session with the featured presenter. The broadcasts are available on-demand after the live events as well.

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