Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish:
Leadership Lessons from Steve Jobs (Part 1 of 3)

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PDF: We made a nice PDF of this series of posts for printing/offline reading. Get it here.

NOTE: This was originally planned and written as a book, but we decided to release it as an in-depth, 3-part blog series (in other words, it’s pretty long!). Each of the 10 chapters looks at one leadership trait or lesson that we can learn from the life of Steve Jobs. If you enjoy this post, please share it and leave us a comment!  This is part 1. Here is part 2 and part 3.

 

Introduction

It’s easy to look around contemporary society and see the imprint that Steve Jobs left behind. From computers and technology, to music and movies, his influence and innovations revolutionized industries. They continue to shape how we consume information and entertainment, achieve productivity, and communicate with each other in modern times.

As the high-profile leader of Apple, NeXT and Pixar, much has been written about Steve Jobs in books and magazine profiles. His life story has been the subject of films and is constant fodder for radio and television programming. Yet no matter how much has been said about Jobs in popular culture, people can’t seem to get enough of him. Learning about his eccentricities, his perspectives on technology and the marketplace, or how he interacted with colleagues offers the inquisitive mind new insights each time.

Jobs was highly intelligent, and this was evident from his childhood years and through college. He often misbehaved out of boredom in grade school, and in middle school was considered odd by his classmates. However, in his high school and college years, he developed a deep love for engineering, electronics, literature, and the arts. These interests had a profound impact on his ideas and technological innovations.

Anecdotes from his colleagues, friends, and family members reveal a man who was smart, but knew how to use that knowledge to make a difference. Nolan Bushnell, co-founder of the video game and computer company Atari, Inc., described Jobs as “the smartest guy in the room, and he would let people know that.”

With his success in leading Apple, NeXT, and Pixar, there is much we can learn from Steve Jobs and his many principles as a leader and trailblazer. He was known for his keynote speeches, fondly referred to as “Stevenotes”, which revolved around his core ideas for achieving success in business, career, decision-making, and forging viable relationships in personal and professional circles. What were his leadership ideals that made him the visionary he truly was and helped him achieve the enormous success that continues even today?

In the following pages, we will look at the lessons in leadership that can be gleaned from the experiences and talks of Steve Jobs. We will delve into the choices he made as a business mogul in order to better understand how Steve’s passion and dedication to his craft can be emulated by anyone looking to enhance their own leadership skills.

 

Lesson One: Don’t Do It for The Money

Our materialistic society places a premium on financial success. The bigger your salary, the nicer things you can afford, and the more successful you will be considered in your chosen field. While it is not wrong to aim for material success (Steve Jobs, after all, was himself a very wealthy man), doing everything primarily for monetary gain often creates a lifestyle characterized by greed, loss of ideals, and a lack of real fulfillment.

If there is anyone who knows exactly what material success feels like, it is Jobs. He was already a millionaire at the age of twenty-three. His net worth was about ten million dollars at age twenty-four, and this had grown exponentially to a hundred million dollars by the following year. Jobs was one of the youngest ever to make it to Forbes’ list of the richest people. Even more impressive is the fact that he did this without any inherited wealth. By the time he passed away in 2011, his net worth was around $10.2 billion.

Yet, in a 1995 interview, Jobs had this to say:

“You know, [being a millionaire]wasn’t that important, because I never did it for the money. I think money is a wonderful thing, because it enables you to do things. It enables you to invest in ideas that don’t have a short-term payback. At that time in my life, it was not the most important thing. The most important thing was the company, the people, the products we were making. And what we were going to enable people to do with these products. So I didn’t think about the money a great deal. I never sold any stock. I just believed that the company would do very well over the long term.”

Jobs understood that money is neutral. It can enable you to achieve more and make a difference in your spheres of influence. However, money is not the most important thing. Jobs realized early on that it is the people he was working with along with their collective efforts towards groundbreaking consumer products that would eventually give them more satisfaction and a sense of achievement. He was focused more on the pursuit of excellence and the unique experiences of daily life, rather than the fleeting enjoyment that money may bring.

So many people give up their passion or real interests in exchange for a chance to land a more lucrative job or an established career, too often doing work that hardly gives any real fulfillment. The paycheck may be fat, the bank account may be full, but the soul becomes dry, and the spirit soon becomes exhausted from the tedium of it all. On the outside, it may seem like the idealized success story, but a closer look reveals a life that lacks real substance.

Steve Jobs had a passion for the wonders of technology and how it can change the world positively. He found a way to channel this passion into a moneymaking venture. Soon, his ideas became reality. Money was pouring in, but he never lost the passion or excitement he had from the very beginning. In fact, it is reported that even when he was very ill and lying in a hospital bed, he was thinking up devices to hold up an iPad in a hospital bed, and proposing ways the oxygen monitors could be better designed.

This leadership trait focuses on the invaluable importance of passion, talent, and creativity over the prospect of a quick buck. Are you making decisions based only on financial returns without regards to the potential impact it may have on the people you work with? Or based on how they may view their role in your organization or enterprise? Are you weighing the advantages of accepting a job offer based on the increase in salary, without any thought to drawbacks such as spending less time with your family.

People and relationships are ultimately more important than any other material returns. However, too often we get so enamored by the promise of wealth and social status that we become willing to give up the more important things in life. As a leader, your mindset must be one that places a premium on the person rather than production.

When money becomes the driving force for all priorities, we lose sight of how much more real and meaningful life can be beyond any material gain. Let your passion and natural inclinations lead you to a career path that is truly suited to who you are as a person instead of mapping out a path with only financial rewards as motivation. In the end, the happiness of seeing your achievements come to life will bring you more satisfaction, beyond anything money can purchase.

Steve Jobs believed it was important for an individual to find what he or she loves, both personally and professionally. Work takes up a major chunk of an individual’s life, and the only way he can be satisfied is to believe the work he is doing is great work. The only way to be able to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found what you love, then keep looking for it. You shouldn’t have to settle; you will eventually find it. Steve Jobs once said that “your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life”. Have the courage to do what you love and listen to your intuition.

After a hiatus of nearly 12 years, Jobs returned to Apple in 1997. At that time, Apple was close to bankruptcy. Jobs held a staff meeting, where he explained how important passion was in restoring Apple to its former glory. He said “people with passion can change the world”, and this simple idea is the key to success. In a speech given by Jobs at Stanford University in 2005, he said, “You’ve got to find what you love” and the only way in which you will be able to do great work is to love what you do.

If you aren’t passionate about your own ideas, no one else will be. All successful entrepreneurs are passionate, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be about the product. They can be passionate about their mission, about the influence their products or services have on other’s lives, or they might even be passionate about changing the world. For instance, Steve Jobs was never passionate about computer hardware. Instead, he was interested in developing tools to help people unleash their true creativity. He wanted to enrich the lives of those around him through technology.

Jobs was truly obsessed with design, to the extent that he took a calligraphy course to learn it. He believed that a person should follow their heart and have faith that everything will make sense in the future. Even after he was diagnosed with cancer, Jobs returned to Apple to complete projects that were dear to him. His passion and commitment is the primary reason he proved to be such a great leader and inspiration to many.

 

Lesson Two: Set Impossibly High Standards

Whether it is the people he worked with, the products he designed, or his goals for his various ventures, Steve Jobs always raised the bar so high that it often seemed impossible to achieve. While modern culture celebrated mediocrity by accepting the status quo, Jobs strove for something more and the market loved him for it. They knew they were getting more than what the competition could give. The high standards Jobs set for himself became the benchmark for every company he led – Apple, NeXT, Pixar – and the results were obvious.

It is said that the design team at Apple, the Human Interaction team, had to meet with Jobs every other weekend to present their ideas. Jobs, ever the perfectionist, would usually critique their proposals, ask for a do-over, and have them evaluated again in the same meeting two weeks later. It was constant pressure on the employees, so much so that Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple with Jobs, commented that many former employees have said they would never want to work with Jobs again.

However, this constant stress to improve undoubtedly pushed many of these Apple employees to raise their own standards. As a result, Apple products were regarded as among the best in the industry. Jobs’ perfectionism may have turned off many employees who could not stand the pressure, but those who stayed and endured eventually became a part of the Apple technology revolution.

Ken Segall, a former creative director at Apple, who also worked with an ad agency for NeXT, described Jobs as “a client with absurdly high standards”. Segall is the man who coined the ‘i’ in iMac, which is now in many other Apple products such as the iPod and iPhone. He was also behind the famous Super Bowl commercial in 1999 about Apple and the Y2K bug. He goes on to say about Jobs:

“When it came to products, he believed in putting customer experience above all other things. When we had to run multi-page ads, we would have to choose the paper that the ads were printed on. Steve believed because people were going to love the experience of the ad, they would buy more Apple products as it gave them such a high quality. So, Steve showed you that you can have values and run a profitable business.”

Instead of just giving directives, exceptional leaders promote a high standard of excellence by ‘walking the talk.’ The reason why Jobs’ insistence on excellence became part of the culture in his companies is because he also endeavored to live up to these ideals. People working with him knew he wasn’t exempt from his own high expectations.

In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson also wrote about the very high personal standards Jobs set:

“From his father Steve Jobs learned that a hallmark of passionate craftsmanship is making sure that even the aspects that will remain hidden are done beautifully… ‘I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though no one’s going to see it…you’ll know it’s there…for you to sleep well at night…the quality has to be carried all the way through.’”

For many of us, excellence may be something we aim for in the workplace or with colleagues, but these standards are set aside when we’re left alone. How often have you cut corners when no one was looking, or let something slide that otherwise you would not have done had someone been there to scrutinize your work? Jobs’ standard for himself was such that even when no one was around, he insisted on excellence down to the smallest detail.

How you set your personal and professional standards does not need to be an exact replica of Jobs. The standards we set for ourselves are shaped by our backgrounds, influences, and environment. The people we work and interact with constantly will either push us to aim higher or lower. Do those with whom you surround yourself challenge you, or are you finding yourself settling for less because your environment overlooks mediocrity or prioritizes quantity over quality?

Leaders sometimes confuse high standards with rigid, unrealistic codes of conduct or expectations, which is not always correct. What may constitute as “very high” standards for one group may be considered as inferior or insufficient to another. In addition, just because you may think you are strict doesn’t necessarily mean the rules themselves set any reasonably high standards for your organization.

A true leader recognizes that without clearly set standards for performance and excellence in areas of importance, a team will not achieve its full potential. High standards challenge stakeholders to bring their ‘A’ game and come fully prepared. In this area, Jobs clearly embodied a leader who not only set the bar for excellence, but also passed it along to those around him, causing a trend that eventually became the dominant culture in his companies.

 

Lesson Three: Hire The Best

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Computers. Photo used under creative commons, from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Nichollas_Harrison

In the business world, securing the top talent for your team is a factor that can determine whether or not the venture will succeed. Steve Jobs recognized the necessity of working with staff who are the best at what they do. These are employees who can contribute not just skills and experience, but ideas that will push the organization forward and keep them ahead of the competition.

Jobs once famously quipped, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do”. He understood that in order to get the most out of his employees’ potential, he needed them to not just perform a role, but also to actively share their opinions, feedback, and vision for improving the company.

Jobs emphasized hiring the very best of the best. He was directly involved in the hiring process and was said to have personally interviewed around 5,000 applicants. This means he was acutely aware of what hiring entailed and how to determine which potential recruits were the best candidates to join his team.

This also underscores how much of a perfectionist Jobs really was. He took time to really build a team that could challenge him and have the same passion he had for innovation. In his autobiography, Jobs says:

“I’ve learned over the years that, when you have really good people, you don’t have to baby them. By expecting them to do great things, you can get them to do great things. The original Mac team taught me that A-plus players like to work together, and they don’t like it if you tolerate B-grade work.”

While much can be said about the incredible vision, intellect, and innovative spirit of Steve Jobs, he has constantly credited much of his success to the collaborative efforts of his team. He once said, “the secret of my success is that we have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world.”

A true leader recognizes the invaluable contributions the people around him can give towards the success of the company or organization. He will work to make the hiring process one that is laser-focused on securing talented, driven, and committed individuals who display top-notch skills and the hunger to learn more.

The ideal team consists of members who each have their own strengths and unique skills to contribute. An effective leader recognizes how to harness these varied skills toward a common goal. He also encourages questions and arguments that push each team member to deliver their best at all times, knowing that the others in the group will expect nothing less.

Why is it important to hire the best? You will be spending a lot of time with your team: conversations, planning sessions, proposal meetings, and product launches. Circumstances will either bring out the best in each of you, or hinder you from moving forward as a team towards bigger goals.

Jobs described it best:

“My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other, and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That’s how I see business: Great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.”

For most managers, hiring people isn’t something they are required to do, so they aren’t interested in investing their time in refining a management skill they don’t use. Steve Jobs thought otherwise. Hiring the best of employees is integral for improving the overall productivity of the company. Accurate hiring also helps in employee retention and engagement.

In the end, it pays to surround yourself with people who have positive attitudes, and are anxious to grab the next opportunity or discover the next big thing. Their energy will rub off on everyone in the team, and that excitement can be translated positively into effective action that keeps your group a step ahead of the pack.

Leaders should not be scared or intimidated by people who seem too confident, or have the potential to overshadow their own abilities. Rather, a wise leader, such as Steve Jobs, knows that the more he is able to work with the best, the higher his chances will be in improvement, innovation, and becoming the industry leader.

 



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This is the end of Part 1. Here’s Part 2 and Part 3.

Sources at the end of Part 3.


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