Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish:
Leadership Lessons from Steve Jobs (Part 2 of 3)


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NOTE: This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Here is part 1 and part 3.


Lesson Four: Practice Innovation

History is full of stories of trailblazers who dared to dream bigger than their peers and did not stop until they fulfilled their ambition for change. In the areas of science and technology alone, the names of Thomas Edison, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Alexander Graham Bell, Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, James Watt, Johannes Gutenberg, Charles Babbage, and Henry Ford are among the most revered worldwide for their revolutionary contributions to society.

When it comes to innovation in modern times, Steve Jobs is credited with shaking up the way we now communicate, consume information, and spend our leisure time. His groundbreaking ideas about smart phones, animated films, and the musical listening experience have dominated the last couple of decades. His vision made Apple and Pixar household names and entrenched the iPod and iPhone as benchmarks for mobile technology.

Where did Steve Jobs get the inspiration for his products? Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Jobs, notes that he drew from a wide range of influences in the humanities harking back to his college years. Early on, Jobs had an intense fascination with Eastern religion, philosophy, design, art, culture and literature. These interests had an impact on the way Jobs viewed technology and how it relates to the human experience.

One of the reasons why Steve Jobs found immense success with the products he released was he somehow found a formula that made these products click with all kinds of people, regardless of age, background, cultural nuances, and geographic location. Jobs was focused on innovations that would enrich people’s lives beyond just selling mere products and services. He knew that no matter how functional a device may be, if it did not speak to the human experience, it would not be a success.

This philosophy became his passion for innovation and creativity. When Jobs came back to Apple in 1996, the company was already producing computers that, while functional, were not seeing much mass-market success. Apple was already on the verge of bankruptcy. However, Jobs somehow found a way to turn things around, and he did this by just going with his gut feel about what would work.

Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice,” Jobs said. “And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

In 1996, the world already had computers, cellular phones, CD players, and portable media players. However, Steve Jobs had something else in mind: what if these devices could do more? Apple’s Macbook computers soon became known for their sleek designs and powerful capabilities, as Jobs continued to push his team to discover user-friendly features and pack on more processing power than the average user needed at the time. Then the iPod came along and this totally changed the way people consumed music. Instead of lugging their CD collections everywhere, the iPod allowed users to carry hundreds of hours of music on a pocket-sized device. It was an instant hit.

The genius of Jobs’ innovations is that they were almost always timed right at the cusp of some major force already about to upend technology or entertainment as a whole. When the iPod came out in 2001, the digital music revolution was already in full swing but in danger of being cut short as the music industry threatened to clamp down on piracy. With the iPod and iTunes, Jobs introduced a compromise that made both music producers and consumers happy: users still paid for the music, but could now choose only the songs they liked and in the mp3 format which they now preferred.

His innovation did not stop there. As cellular phones became more of a fixture in daily life, Apple introduced the iPhone, a high-powered touchscreen smartphone which also housed users’ apps, music, video, and Internet browsing. Once again, it was a resounding success and a game-changer in the crowded mobile phone market. To this day, iPhones are the leader in the smartphone market.

Despite the myriad of features and functions present in Apple devices, Jobs borrowed heavily from the Eastern philosophy of simplicity. This was one reason why so many users were drawn to the user-friendly designs of iPods and iPhones. Jobs once said, “That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex; you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”

While Jobs certainly had many hits, some of his attempts at innovation also produced misses. He was always ready to admit those failures and move past them. “Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations,” Jobs said.

Few people today would remember the Apple Lisa, the Powermac G4 Cube, the Apple III or the Macintosh TV, much less know what was wrong with them in the first place. Nevertheless, these are among the product failures of Jobs’ career. What he did was to learn from those failures, and capitalize on other products that were successful. As a result, he is remembered more for the products that did make it big.

Innovation in leadership requires risk-taking and a willingness to buck the trend, banking on intensive research and careful study, while having the patience to test various methods and learn from them. Innovative leaders are comfortable with being considered different or crazy because their ideas don’t seem realistic to the casual observer. In the very words of Steve Jobs:

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… The ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them, but 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 ones, who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”


Lesson Five: Build a Brand

Today’s consumers are bombarded by marketing messages of all kinds. With all the different media platforms available today – Internet, TV, print, radio, mobile, outdoor – the average person is exposed to all sorts of marketing tactics and strategies. At times be difficult to tell one product, service, or company from the other. This is where branding comes into play.

Beyond just advertising messages, branding seeks to firmly establish a presence by cleverly packaging a lifestyle or experience around a person, company, product, or service. In a bid to set itself apart from the rest of the fold, branding aims to build a unique relationship with the consumer and become instantly recognizable.

Steve Jobs wasn’t just full of energy, innovation, and big ideas. He was also brilliant at marketing and in thinking of strategies that would make his products – Apple, in particular – part of a brand that would be globally recognizable. Jobs was a master of promotion and knew how to build up hype around his product launches. But more than that, he built a brand based on quality, market-leading features, and forward-thinking ideas that challenged the norms of the day.

Jobs was a stickler for quality in everything – from the hiring process, to research and development, to production facilities and the manufacturing process, and the distribution and marketing of his products. It was his belief that customers appreciate quality, and good quality builds a brand in a much more effective way than any sleek marketing campaign can achieve.

Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected,” according to Jobs. He knew that if he delivered products with superior quality, anticipated consumer needs, and backed it up with exceptional customer service, users would become loyal followers. These loyal followers would then become his customer base for the next few years, essentially building a brand through positive word-of-mouth and a remarkable track record.

Steve Jobs tapped into people’s dreams, life goals, and ambitions. He designed and packaged his products in such a way that these products would help people fulfill these goals. The brand he created was focused on a certain lifestyle, a feeling of individuality, achievement and self-worth. The products became the tools to reach this lifestyle instead of just the focus of his marketing strategies. Apple commercials – notably, the famous ‘1984’ Super Bowl commercial – resonated with an audience that longed for a respite from the mundane. These ads played right into the ‘hip’ lifestyle with which Apple products became synonymous.

Jobs wanted his products to be accessible even for those who were not as tech-savvy as others. At the same time, he did not want to appear to be dumbing things down or alienating his more sophisticated target audience. He achieved this balance by simplifying everything, from the designs of his laptops, phones, and mobile devices, to easy-to-use graphic user interfaces and interconnected apps across Apple devices. Even the iconic minimalism of Apple stores were part of his branding strategy to showcase quality, high-tech products in a way which was not intimidating to potential customers.

Apple’s products were not entirely new or without inspiration taken from elsewhere. Computers and cellular phones already existed, but Jobs made products that improved on everything these devices could do, and made them more relatable to the common user’s daily goals and dreams. He then marketed them in such a way that they seemed completely new and unique.

As a leader, learning from Steve Jobs on branding would involve analyzing your audience and knowing their needs, preferences, and goals. What is it they are striving for? How are they working towards their personal dreams and ambitions? More importantly, how can you relate to their life goals and position yourself and your organization to help people achieve what they want in life?

Branding is effective when it is able to successfully enter the audience’s stream of consciousness. It is offering a better way of doing things; a departure from what has always seemed the best way. If what you are providing can make people’s lives better, your message should revolve around these enhancements to your market’s lifestyles rather than just selling products for what they are. In other words: don’t sell features, sell benefits.

Why are many consumers today willing to pay top dollar for Macbooks, iPhones, and iPads? These devices are often more expensive than their non-Apple counterparts, and yet they continue to sell out because they have become symbols of top quality, superior design, and durability. When a Windows computer sometimes freezes or gets bogged down, you can count on your Mac to just keep working. iPhones and iPads work seamlessly even when you have multiple apps running, allowing for multi-tasking and productivity on the go. Customers already know what to expect from the brand.

Steve Jobs believed in giving his market more than just a tech gadget for work or play. He tied everything to a superior lifestyle that was fast-paced but enjoyable, productive but relational, effective but with room for new experiences. The result was brand recognition that remains unequaled to this day, resonating in every variation of Apple products that roll out. Why? Because Jobs believed in the power of doing more:

“You don’t have to be in business for long to know that this one is true. Go the extra mile in everything, and the value of your brand will make itself evident to your clients and partners.”


Lesson Six: Stay Persistent

Steve Jobs faced various setbacks throughout his life, from dropping out of college and lacking a clear sense of direction in his younger years, to being kicked out of Apple in 1985 by the CEO Jobs himself hired. Throughout the many failures Jobs went through in his storied career, the one leadership trait that stands out is his persistence and determination to keep going no matter what.

To be a strong leader, you have to be unwavering in achieving the end goal you have set for yourself and the organization you are leading. People will look to you for direction, especially when the going gets tough, and it seems easier to just throw in the towel and abandon everything. Jobs taught us to practice perseverance in the midst of insurmountable difficulties, building character and finding ways around the problem in order to reach a workable solution.

Jobs was quoted as saying, “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance. Unless you have a lot of passion about this, you’re not going to survive. You’re going to give it up. So you’ve got to have an idea, or a problem or a wrong that you want to right that you’re passionate about; otherwise, you’re not going to have the perseverance to stick it through.”

There is much to learn from this nugget of wisdom from Jobs. He mentions passion as a key to perseverance, and rightfully so. It is hard for anyone to find the motivation to stick it out with a goal or venture he himself doesn’t have the desire for in the first place. Passion fuels determination and wills the body to keep pushing even when the mind has doubts or fears.

Passion is what keeps a competitive athlete waking up early each morning, training hard and following a strict meal plan in preparation for a major competition. Because the athlete already has that goal of Olympic glory in his mindset, any of the distractions or fatigue that can hinder his dedication are set aside. This passion also moves the doctor who works round-the-clock to find a cure for a yet-incurable disease, or the lawyer who must exhaust all possible legal means to save the life of his wrongfully-accused client facing death row.

Much like adrenaline, when passion courses through a person’s veins, all else seems insignificant when compared to the potential achievement ahead. Jobs had a vision of using technology to make people’s lives better and to connect the world in ways never seen before. Because he had this passion, he viewed any setbacks as temporary, and instead looked for ways to get around roadblocks and reach his destination by whatever means necessary.

This passion doesn’t come overnight. In many instances, it is instilled or enhanced during a person’s formative years. When Jobs was once asked what advice he would share with those who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs, he said, “I’d get a job as a busboy or something until I figured out what I was really passionate about.” Once you know what you are destined to do, you can then set out to take your place in the universe and become that person.

Jobs recognized the revolutionary, life-changing power of passion. “People with passion can change the world for the better,” he said. The most persistent individuals you will find in any industry are the ones who are, slowly but surely, causing ripples of change in their respective homes, communities, workplaces, and social circles. They have tapped into their passion and are using that to drive their determination towards making a positive impact in the world.

Without Jobs’ persistence, the smartphone industry as we know it now would look totally different. Before the launch of the iPhone, Jobs’ design team at Apple faced many challenges. Calls were dropping, WiFi connectivity problems kept popping up, and other design issues were being discovered right up to the day of the launch. However, Jobs willed his team to keep on with the project, and the iPhone’s success completely changed smartphones and their role in our society.

Jobs kept pushing and striving for his goal even when he was removed from his own company, turning his efforts to NeXT Computers and Pixar. So when the tables turned and he found himself once again at the helm of Apple in 1996, he knew the industry and didn’t need time to catch up. He knew just what consumers wanted, and how to tap into those expectations with just the right products and customer experience.

Setbacks can either make or break you. A weaker individual who found himself suddenly kicked out by his own board of directors, orchestrated by the CEO he himself recruited, would have given up. Not Jobs. When he found himself in this position, he looked at it as an opportunity to grow and learn more. He came back stronger, more mature, and with a renewed passion to “put a ding in the universe”.

How do you react to sudden upheavals or hardships? A mature leader looks at obstacles as building blocks to greater success, rather than hindrances that should just be accepted with resignation. Just like what Jobs did, true leaders recognize that not everything goes according to plan all the time. It is in the difficult situations that test your character as a leader.

Seeing your goals through to the very end is a habit that is consistent with everyone who has ever been successful. It is this level of persistence that lifts someone from a life of mediocrity to extraordinary success. Steve Jobs was one such individual who refused to give up and never took “no” for an answer. Most people thought Job’s dreams were impossible to achieve, but he stuck by his vision.

Persistence is rewarded with results. The leader who perseveres, despite the odds, will inspire those he works with to push their own limits.


Lesson Seven: Manage Controversy

If your goal is to be an effective leader, you must be prepared for the inevitable controversies and negative publicity that sometimes comes with the territory. Regardless of your chosen industry or field of expertise, controversial decisions, rivalries, intense competition, and other not-so-positive scenarios will come up. It is up to you to use these situations to your advantage. In fact, you can even use controversy to strengthen your brand and relate to your target market.

Steve Jobs recognized this early on. As a radical visionary, he knew that many of his ideas would be viewed as extreme by his contemporaries. However, he was ready to take the flak and let the chips fall where they may. He also brilliantly used controversial statements along with marketing strategies against his biggest competitors to create an ‘us-versus-them’ image that related to his audience, and it largely worked for him.

Jobs’ conflict with Microsoft is now legendary. Jobs started in the tech industry at roughly the same time that Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft with Paul Allen and was making inroads in the computer business. During the early ’80’s, Microsoft and Apple actually worked closely together, and Jobs and Gates were friends outside of professional commitments. However, as they had differing visions for their own ventures, a clash was inevitable.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs often butted heads over the years. Photo via CC licence: GFDL 1.2,

Jobs had a dream of dominating the computer business, and so did Gates. Jobs had expected to achieve dominance through its Macintosh OS, but Gates also had the foresight to recognize that a graphic user interface would soon become the staple in computers, especially for the consumer market. Back then, Microsoft had its DOS operating system, but Gates had his engineers copy from the Macintosh OS and develop their own version: Windows.

The fallout when Jobs found out was pronounced. While they continued to partner together, albeit very awkwardly, the competitive side of the relationship between Jobs’ Apple and Gates’ Microsoft garnered more media attention. It was constant fodder for legions of loyal fans of both companies.

Jobs was very vocal about his views on Microsoft. In a 1996 television documentary entitled Triumph of the Nerds, Job’s said, “they (Microsoft) have absolutely no taste. And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas, and they don’t bring much culture into their products.”

As for his erstwhile close friend Gates, Jobs had this to say shortly thereafter: “I told him I believed every word of what I’d said but that I never should have said it in public. I wish him the best, I really do. I just think he and Microsoft are a bit narrow. He’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.”

In television and print ads, Apple went after Microsoft’s designs, painting their rival as the big bad institution with Apple as the rebel ready to change the system. Who doesn’t remember the Get A Mac ads of the 1990’s, with the PC guy who looks conspicuously like, well, Bill Gates?

When the battle shifted to mobile, Apple’s iPhone was a leader, with Microsoft barely considered a major player. However, it was Google’s Android that soon became the biggest threat to Apple’s mobile dominance. Jobs used this to his advantage, playing up some controversy and depicting Google as the copycat. “I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”

In his talks and media interviews, Jobs always cleverly used these controversies to further strengthen his message that Apple was the original purveyor of ideas in the tech industry, and this endeared him and his products to his loyal cult following. He was able to engineer the message and translate it into sales and brand loyalty.

Now, you may not necessarily have to shore up a massive head-on collision with your competitors or rivals, but the lesson we can glean from Jobs is to manage controversy when it does come up in such a way that you still come out in control. As they say, bad publicity is still publicity, and if the limelight is already in your direction, you can seize that moment to engineer a message that would resonate with your intended audience.

Jobs also recognized that this kind of competition is healthy, because it pressures all sides to step up their game, which then benefits the end users. That said, if you feel you have to show some teeth as a leader, be like Jobs and don’t be afraid to speak up, as he did on several occasions: “We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We’ve decided to do something about it. We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours.”


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This is the end of Part 2. Here’s Part 3.  Or if you missed it, Part 1.

Sources at the end of Part 3.

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