The death of Steve Jobs on October 5th proved to be of such moment that it eclipsed headlines about wars, politics, and economics. The outpouring of grief rivaled the passing of Princess Diana, the assassinations of world leaders, and the loss of Edison and Einstein. Emotions surged because Jobs was so closely identified with techno-cool, the marriage of design and engineering. But cool and technology have short half-lives. There is more to the memory of Steve Jobs, that he heralded a new mind-set, that he was a secular messenger of the New Millennium. To Google on the words, “Steve Jobs prophet” summons up close to three million citations.
Why does Steve Jobs warrant our exaltation? Those whom we exalt today become the templates for our children, who watch and listen for useful examples for their own lives. For those of us who lead and teach, it is important to be caught up in positive examples. Was Steve Jobs a prophet? Did Jobs leave a business legacy that is both durable and original?
Perhaps, though not in ways that the cultural adulation might warrant. He was a complex guy who grew up in a nontraditional path: an adopted child, a college drop-out, an experimenter with drugs and Buddhism—all of this was the fertile soil of a nonconformist. What makes a dramatic personal tale perhaps obscures some valuable lessons about strategy and leadership drawn from Jobs’s career.
Jobs focused relentlessly on the experience of the end-user of a product. He was not trained as an engineer but he became an effective advocate for the intuitive use of engineered products. The vaulting popularity of Apple’s products is testament to their ease of use, delight, and sense of discovery of ways in which technology can enrich one’s life. This focus on the customer’s experience is a leading attribute shared by a range of high-performing firms in the global economy. A Fellow at the Darden School, Jim Gilmore, and Joseph Pine discuss the huge significance of this focus in their book, The Experience Economy. Jobs was one of the premier practitioners of focus, not merely on the customer, but on the customer’s experience.
Jobs was a champion for design. In most manufacturing companies there is a relentless competition among proponents of low cost, high efficiency, and winsomeness of a product. Corporate infighting and bureaucracy often grind the artful product ideas down to utilitarian size, worthy of the old Soviet Union. But a new school of thought suggests that all really worthy innovations gain their start through processes of design thinking. These processes tackle difficult problems by combining empathy, creativity, and rationality. Rationality gets you low cost and high efficiency; empathy and creativity help to ensure the winsomeness of the product. Business Schools are now adapting their curricula to include instruction in design thinking. My colleague, Professor Jeanne Liedtka, and Tim Ogilvie, offer more discussion of design thinking in their new book, Designing for Growth.
Jobs was a pro-active leader of consumer sentiment. One hears a great deal about how companies must listen to the market and respond to consumer wants. This leads to a reactive stance on product design. Also, a classic riff on capitalism is that it depends on selling consumers goods that they don’t really need, such as static-free socks or cheese-flavored pet food. Steve Jobs took a different view. In a famous statement, he said, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Jobs spawned a range of new products to test and spark the interest of consumers. Some products failed (the Apple III, and the Lisa, for instance). Jobs was willing to take risks in order to educate the consumer and ultimately find out what the consumer wanted.
Another lesson regards the sense of mortality with which Jobs regarded his own life. In his famous graduation speech at Stanford University in 2005, he told the students to “remember that you are going to die” and therefore have nothing to lose. This liberating mortality encouraged the students to stay hungry, be foolish, take risks, and fail often. He claimed not to be motivated by the love of money—indeed, his salary from Apple was $1.00 per year (plus stock options)—and he said that he did not want to be the richest man in the cemetery. But what is unusual is that this same sense of mortality did not prompt him with a spirit of philanthropy that would create a legacy like Rhodes, Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller, and others.
Perhaps the memory of Steve Jobs will give license to incivility in professional life. Every prominent person has detractors. Jobs has more than a few who described him as: “despotic jerk,” “imperious,” “strong-willed contrarian,” “arrogant,” “combustible genius,” “control freak,” “abrasive,” “unapologetic brutality,” “temperamental,” “mouthy,” “tyrannical,” and “a great man, not a nice man.” Does successful innovation demand business leaders who behave this way? Is this an icon our students and children should emulate? I think not.
Steve Jobs casted a very long shadow. He was not a prophet or messenger; he was a do-er, someone who implemented his own visions. He was a heroic figure, like a character out of an Ayn Rand novel. A tough guy who bent technology to human uses, not vice versa. In him, some fault lines ran deep. We should remember him for his virtues and adopt styles of leadership that avoid his flaws.