7 leadership lessons from Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was nothing if not a whole host of contradictions – but he was unarguably brilliant.

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Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) may have plenty of lessons for companies to learn, but Steve Jobs has even more for other leaders to take note of.

After all, we're talking about a guy who resurrected a company that was literally a fiscal quarter away from bankruptcy and proceeded to grow it into the largest company in the world by market cap. In the most recent issue of Harvard Business Review, his official biographer, Walter Isaacson, has detailed 14 ways that other leaders can learn from Jobs. Today, we'll look at seven of those.

Jobs turned Apple into a company that will probably withstand the test of time, and Isaacson believes that traditional business schools will be studying how he did so a century from now.

One of the first things Jobs did upon his return was to slim down Apple's product line to focus on depth instead of breadth. The story goes that he simply started from scratch and drew a grid on a whiteboard that would outline Apple's product strategy — a grid that mostly holds true to this day, 15 years later.


He had two columns labeled "Consumer" and "Pro" and two rows labeled "Desktop" and "Portable," to create four quadrants. He axed every other product Apple had at the time, including things like printers and other peripherals.

After having his top employees help him compile a list of 10 important initiatives, he would scratch the bottom seven and say, "We can only do three."

Shortly before Jobs' death, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) co-founder Larry Page, who had just become Google's CEO earlier that year, came to Jobs seeking advice. Despite the ever-escalating iOS vs. Android mobile warfare, Jobs complied and emphasised focus. He told Page: "[Google is] now all over the map. What are the five products you want to focus on? Get rid of the rest, because they're dragging you down. They're turning you into Microsoft(Nasdaq: MSFT) . They're causing you to turn out products that are adequate but not great."

Remember when Page shut down Google Labs last year? He said, "Greater focus has also been another big feature for me this quarter — more wood behind fewer arrows."

Jobs' drive for minimalism and simplicity can be related to focus, and it's also exemplified by Apple's industrial design philosophy. Isaacson compares Apple's software with Microsoft Word, which has progressively gotten "more cluttered" over time with extra features.

Design head Jony Ive and Jobs worked to get rid of as many screws and buttons as they could. Jobs demanded that the iPod user interface should be able to accomplish any task in three clicks.

This was even a starting point for Jobs to find the next industry to disrupt: Who's making products more complicated than they need to be?

Take responsibility end to end
Apple's integration of the whole user experience, from hardware and software to content, is evidence of this end-to-end approach. It's a stark contrast to how Microsoft and Google spread their operating systems on a plethora of hardware choices, which can lead to disjointed experiences.

Jobs was a notorious control freak, and this manifested itself by owning the whole process.

When behind, leapfrog
Apple isn't always at the forefront of every industry. In some cases, when it's behind the curve it finds a way to jump past the competition. This was the case with the original iMac, as it couldn't burn CDs, which was all the rage at the time.

To compensate, Apple didn't simply add a CD burner to the iMac — it created the iTunes Store that revolutionized the entire industry.

Jobs would then move on to consider threats that could leapfrog his own accomplishments and saw that smartphones were becoming music players. The iPhone has undoubtedly and intentionally cannibalized the iPod, but Jobs noted, "If we don't cannibalise ourselves, someone else will."

Put products before profits
There's no doubt that Apple enjoys its fair share of profits, but the dollars follow after the company creates a great product. So that's what Apple focuses on: making great products. Jobs noted that when sales and marketing execs take over a product company, the end result is that the products suffer for the sake of the bottom line.

Jobs said: "When the sales guys run the company, the product guys don't matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off. It happened at Apple when [John] Sculley came in, which was my fault, and it happened when [Steve] Ballmer took over at Microsoft."

Don't be a slave to focus groups
Jobs was known for disregarding consumers' desires, believing they won't know what they want until you show it to them. He would frequently quote Ford (NYSE: F) founder, Henry Ford as saying, "If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, 'A faster horse!'"

Isaacson draws a distinction between caring deeply about what customers want and constantly asking them what they want. Jobs succeeded by intuitively knowing what they want and by focusing on what he would want personally.

Bend reality
Jobs had an infamous "reality distortion field," whereby he could motivate those around him to push their limitations and surpass what they once thought was impossible.

For example, Jobs wanted one of the early Mac engineers, Larry Kenyon, to make Macs boot up faster, but Kenyon thought it couldn't be done. Jobs asked whether Kenyon could make it boot 10 seconds faster if a person's life depended on it, to which Kenyon conceded that he probably could. Jobs proceeded to demonstrate that if 5 million Mac users could save 10 seconds every day, that came out to about 300 million hours annually — more than 100 lifetimes saved every year. Kenyon got the Mac to boot 28 seconds faster.

This even worked at higher levels. When Jobs approached Corning (NYSE: GLW) for Gorilla Glass for use in iPhones, CEO Wendell Weeks said he couldn't produce enough in the six months that Jobs demanded because Corning had developed the process decades ago but had never actually manufactured it. Jobs simply pushed: "Don't be afraid. Yes, you can do it. Get your mind around it. You can do it." Corning did it in less than six months.

Steve Jobs was nothing if not a whole host of contradictions – but he was unarguably brilliant.

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A version of this article was originally published on fool.com

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