Steve Jobs biographer pens: ‘The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs’

March 20, 2012
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In his article, ‘The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs', Isaacson focuses on many of the issues Jobs faced leading teams at Apple in developing the Mac, devices like the iPod, iPhone and iPad as well as challenges related to running Apple and inspiring both employees and outside partners to new heights of creativity and performance. 

The article is slated to run in the April edition of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) but is already available online. 

Jobs told Isaacson his most important creation wasn’t the Mac, the iPhone or iPad, but Apple the company, which was far harder. How was he so successful? Isaacson details some of what he considers the keys to Jobs’ success, though he also notes business schools may still be studying the question of how Apple became such a phenomenal success a hundred years from now. 

In fact, one critic of Isaacson’s piece thinks he missed important aspects of Jobs’ leadership success. More about that shortly. 


Isaacson says Jobs was always looking to simplify things: 

"Jobs learned to admire simplicity when he was working the night shift at Atari as a college dropout. Atari’s games came with no manual and needed to be uncomplicated enough that a stoned freshman could figure them out. The only instructions for its Star Trek game were: “1. Insert quarter. 2. Avoid Klingons.” 

That philosophy carried over in a suggestion he made to the team working on the first iPod. Isaacson recounts that at one point Jobs made the simplest of all suggestions: “Let’s get rid of the on/off button.” At first the team members were taken aback, but then they realized the button was unnecessary. The device would gradually power down if it wasn’t being used and would spring to life when reengaged.

Do judge a book by its cover

Another example was a lesson learned from one of his early mentors Mike Markkula who helped finance Apple back when it was just starting. 

The lesson was a simple one, though not always followed. Isaacson said Jobs knew people formed an opinion about a product or a company on the basis of how it is presented and packaged. “Mike taught me that people do judge a book by its cover,” he told Jobs. 

Both Jobs and Apple design whiz Jonathan Ive believed that unpacking was, as Isaacson put it “a ritual like theater and heralded the glory of the product.” Jobs himself said “When you open the box of an iPhone or iPad, we want that tactile experience to set the tone for how you perceive the product.” 

The push for perfection with the iPad

Isaacson recounts that Jobs was dissatisfied with a prototype design of the original iPad.  The issue for Jobs and Ive was that it didn’t seem casual and friendly enough to scoop up and whisk away. 

“They needed to signal that you could grab it with one hand, on impulse. They decided that the bottom edge should be slightly rounded, so that a user would feel comfortable just snatching it up rather than lifting it carefully,” said Isaacson. 

So it was back to the drawing board for the engineering team that had to design the necessary connection ports and buttons in a thin, simple lip that sloped away gently underneath. Jobs delayed the product until the change could be made.

Countering Isaacson’s claims 

But Jonathan Rotenberg, who was once recruited by Jobs to work at Apple and is writing a book about him, said in a Facebook post headed "The "Not-So-Important' Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs" that while each of Isaacson's take-aways “are reasonable and more true than not” he “misses the underlying point of HOW Steve led, how he made decisions, and how he created the products and companies he did.” 

Rotenberg said in part that the essence of Jobs’ approach to leadership is summed up in the two-word marketing tagline Apple used back in 1997 when Jobs’ rejoined the company: “Think Different.” 

“Where HBS would have business leaders plaster-over their present-moment experiences with boatloads of frameworks and theories, "Think Different" means: Drop ALL your theories, concepts & preconceived ideas,” said Rotenberg. “PAY ATTENTION instead to the raw reality coming in through your five senses and your mind. This is where you will find real insight and wisdom.” 


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