What are the real leadership lessons from Steve Jobs biography? CEO’s listen up!

Share this post:

The Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson is a masterpiece, albeit below par compared to Isaacson’s other biographies.  The book was published in November 2011, Steve Jobs, The Myndset Brand Strategy and Leadershiponly a month after the death of Steve Jobs (October 5, 2011), so timing was of the essence.  It must have sold somewhere well north of 3 million copies (I found a source citing 2.25MM sold by May 2012 here).  Among those 3+ million copies, a good number were presumably read by other CEOs and c-suite executives.  I can imagine not a few, like the character Clark (Nathan Lane) in “The Good Wife,” who try to adopt Steve Jobsian behavior.

As I was reading the book at the end of last year, I pondered what would have gone through the mind of CEOs as they read the book.

First, I considered what was the motivation to read the book?  How did the CEO interpret it?  What are the real lessons to be derived?

Morbid curiosity or hunger to learn?

  • Was it a morbid curiosity to want to know the innards of a man who was brazen enough to bare the darker side of his personality in the last  months of his life?
  • Was it a thirst to know the genius and/or the magic behind the success?
  • Was it just to stay up with the Jones’ by reading a book that has been on the best seller list basically ever since it came out?

How does a CEO interpret the biography?

  • They read it with a legitimate hope to soak up any and every kernel of insight.
  • They read it thinking that they do parts of what Jobs did, but not at all as horribly.
  • They read with admirable distance, saying that they are completely different from the Jobs model.
  • They read and find the book a great justification for being the horrible person that they are at work. 

What are the real leadership lessons?

Isaacson wrote a most interesting HBR article in which he describes the key leadership lessons and take-aways.  I tend to disagree with a few of the points Isaacson identifies, because they are not all so easily reproducible or applicable to other situations or cultures.  I also do not subscribe so heavily to the “product first” philosophy that Isaacson highlights on a couple of occasions, i.e. when he writes about putting products before profits.  Independent of whatever the motivations for reading the book, here are my four main takeaways that I believe any CEO should truly take away from this biography.

  1. Purpose / Mission.  What is the meta mission of your company that will corral the energies of the employees and key stakeholders?  As Steve Jobs once famously said to John Sculley, the then President of PepsiCo, to woo him over: “Do you want to spend your life selling sugar water or do you want to change the world?”  Isaacson writes in the book how Steve Jobs truly inhabited his mission: “..the world will be a better place with Apple in it.” (Isaacson, W. 2011. Steve Jobs, Little, Brown, p. 304)   However, it is not enough just to have the mission written on the wall.  It must be lived by the CEO and then filtered down through the organization.  In my mind, this is the big legacy of Steve Jobs.    
  2. The art of combining humanities and science.  As Isaacson wrote about Steve Jobs,  “… I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”  Daniel Pink’s book about The Whole New Mind wonderfully characterizes the need to balance the so-called right and left brains.  It is not without a little chuckle that I note that Steve Jobs claimed to have empathy.  If he did, it was an empathy dissociated from human sentiment!  Jobs apparently embraced  three principles that his early mentor Mark Markkula set out: empathy, focus and imputation (aka the value of the first impression).
  3. just say no, The Myndset Digital Marketing and Brand StrategyThe ability to just say no.  In a world of plethoric choices, finite resources and steep competition, the ability to stay focused, simple and obsessively user centric is entirely linked to a bold conviction to refuse the easier “yes.”  One of the great ideas, which can also help to galvanize an organization around the customer was the notion of a single P&L, focused around the user experience.  ”‘We don’t have divisions with their own P&L,’ said Tim Cook.  ’We run one P&L for the company.'” [Isaacson, page 408]  In this way, Jobs allowed innovation be unfettered from the fear of cannibilization.
  4. I finish with the one area where Steve Jobs and his legacy failed: his succession.  His management ethic and style is just not reproducible.  Related in part to his genius, but also the fact that he was the founder and, therefore, lived and breathed his own ethos and mission — as well as the products — he created an empire that cannot continue, at least not with the success it had under his reign.  There are three types of companies I like to compare: the family company run by the founder, the privately held company and the corporate [publicly traded] company run by suits.   If succession planning is difficult in pretty much any business, replacing the founder is like passing through a vortex.  It is my external observation that the vacuum left behind Steve Jobs is decidedly too big to manage for Cook, as brilliant as he may be.

Time will tell.  How did you read the book?  How do you think CEO’s read it?  Open to your remarks, as always!

Loading comments...
Subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter

Subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter

for exclusive content, insights and eye-opening videos. My promise is to stimulate, educate and entertain. I'll also give an overview of the latest content and alerts about upcoming events at which I will be speaking. You can always find my books on Amazon, including my latest book on leadership, You Lead, How Being Yourself Makes You A Better Leader by Kogan Page.

Thank you! You have successfully subscribed!

Pin It on Pinterest