Leadership lessons from Steve Jobs
By ROSHAN THIRAN
“I want to put a dent in the universe” – Steve Jobs, Apple CEO
A few weeks ago, I received a book from publisher McGraw-Hill on Steve Jobs by communications coach Carmine Gallo. I started recollecting the “Think Different” Apple ad campaign.
The ad was the starting point in Steve Job’s revival of a company he founded, was fired from and later brought back to turnaround. The ad was memorable because it was essentially about Steve Job’s 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. Steve 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“.
Steven Paul Jobs has become “the most successful CEO today” according to Jack Welch, reshaping the computer, entertainment, music, telecommunications and the book industries.
Born to Joanne Schieble and Abdulfattah Jandali, a Syrian, he was adopted by Paul and Clara Jobs who promised his biological parents that they would send Steve to college. Steve did go to Reed College but dropped out after one semester.
Although dropping out, he continued attending classes he was passionate about. He worked briefly at Hewlett-Packard meeting Steve Wozniak, who would later co-found Apple with him, 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. Steve 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.” Steve’s 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 Steve’s leadership, I uncovered that he, like Mandela, Gandhi, Napoleon, Jack Welch and other great leaders, all began their leadership journey in silent retreat ‘finding themselves and their passion‘.
In fact, interestingly, I found 6 key steps which enabled all great leaders across time to “put a dent in the universe”. The steps are as follows:
- Take time to be with yourself to know yourself and find out what you truly love to do and what drives you
- Define your vision of a better tomorrow and redefine it till the vision excites you
- Sell and excite the world with the message of your vision
- Build a plan of execution to achieve this vision, including the mobilisation of people to ensure the vision becomes a reality
- Say “NO” to distractions and focus relentlessly on achieving the vision
- Execute! Execute! Execute! and keep executing flawlessly with high quality overcoming obstacles that come your way
Finding yourself & your passion
Steve 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 ten years later, this calligraphy class was the reason that the Macintosh had beautiful typography.
Steve believes his philosophy of following his heart is 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.”
Then Steve went to India spending time with the surroundings and the Creator discovering his “calling.” In fact, when Steve 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 is right. You have got to find what you love and are passionate about first.
Define your vision of a better tomorrow
Steve 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 cellphones. 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. Steve had a way of seeing a greater future.
In Gallo’s book, he cites a story where Steve 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, Steve 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 Steve’s vision, he immediately signed up to work at Apple, a small startup 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.”
Articulate the vision
One of the key leadership lessons Steve 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 does Steve message his vision so perfectly? Firstly, he is passionate about the vision and his energy flows from this passion. More importantly, he spends hours practicing and preparing ensuring his vision is fully understood.
A BusinessWeek week article notes that Steve’s articulation of his vision “comes only after grueling 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.
Mobilising people to execute the vision
A big part about Steve’s 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 Steve had would have been successful had not others joined his crusade.
Similarly, Martin Luther King and Gandhi did not develop followers just by his 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.
Focusing on the journey
Steve Jobs seems 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.
Steve 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 ensures that he removes hindrances from the focus.
Focusing on the most important issues means you have to say “NO to 1000 things” including distractions, which is difficult to do. Steve adds, “Apple is a $30 billion 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.”
Steve is 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.
It’s easy to execute on your vision when things go well. Usually, things never go to plan. Steve recalls, “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 Steve, there is a crisis for almost every single major project or product.
But executing flawlessly means overcoming these challenges and tribulations through discipline, as he claims, “To turn really interesting ideas and fledgling technologies into a company that can continue to innovate for years, it requires a lot of discipline.”
Every Monday, Steve 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, famous business guru whom I interviewed recently on the “Leaderonomics Show” wrote a book on execution.
The key message is the same as Steve – execution is boring and tedious and repetitive. But it’s this rigour that ultimately enables organisations to be successful. Steve understood the power of ruthless execution.
Finally, every journey will require overcoming obstacles. At 21, Steve was the charismatic boy wonder who co-founded Apple. He was worth $200 million by 25, but was thrown out of the company he founded by age 30. Steve lost everything when 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. Steve recently had to fight two near-death experiences with cancer but takes the positives out of it saying, “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 said leadership was easy, but it is definitely worth the journey.
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