Do you ever find a book so intriguing that you cannot stop reading it and talking about the material? Everything about the characters feels like a mystery to be unraveled and you find yourself enamored with their personal characteristics, accomplishments, and flaws. This is what I experienced after recently finishing Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson. Jobs’ passion for life, blunt communication style, owl-like vision, and insanely brilliant ideas helped transform the way humans think about, consume, and interact with technology. He helped create the personal computer industry, restructured the music industry, transformed music consumption, pointed the publishing industry in a new direction, and streamlined the manner in which humans spend their leisure time. He accomplished all of this despite the fact that he came from a middle class household and never earned a college degree. “Walking to the beat of a different drum” does not come close to capturing how Jobs lived his life; he walked to the beat of instruments that have not yet been invented.
Steve Jobs is one of the most inspirational and irritating figures I have ever encountered, so I wanted to pass on the most stimulating lessons from the book. Most important, Steve Jobs reminded us that we are all capable of great things but that we must first believe in ourselves.
Let’s Take a Walk
Critics have pointed out Jobs’ lack of interpersonal sensitivity when communicating with his employees, competitors, suppliers, and even his own family members. He did not have, or care to develop, the social norms of patience, politeness, or constructive criticism. He would publicly belittle employees of any organization if he felt that they were not living up to his expectations, expectations that few people on the planet could have fulfilled. He would scream at the lead Apple engineer for not making the computer chip board aesthetically pleasing just as soon as he would tell a Starbucks employee how to make a better tasting cappuccino. His communication style was as quirky as his eating habits.
But Jobs did have one saving grace regarding his communication style. He loved to take walks with people when he wanted to have important conversations. Jobs would have fit into Aristotle’s Lyceum School since he was such a peripatetic (avid walker). Both Aristotle and Jobs understood the connection between mind, body, and spirit, and they nurtured this connection on long walks to discuss philosophical, entrepreneurial, scientific, and spiritual matters. Using long walks as a medium for communication is an excellent idea because it allows the walkers to discuss a variety of issues in an intimate and informal manner. Topics can range from business decisions to landscape design; this allows people to feel out one another and develop rapport in a non-threatening environment.
Jobs also used the walks in a more strategic manner. Despite the fact that he would blow up at a moment’s notice, he could also be quite charming, and he used the walks to cement his charm. Once people accepted an invitation to take a walk, the only choice they had was to listen to Jobs, or literally walk away. He took advantage of this and applied his persuasive skills in these interpersonal situations. Jobs was an excellent motivator in one-on-one situations but misplaced this charm, persuasion, and flattery when in group situations.
PowerPoint Prevents Thinking
Imagine the following scenario: Your boss asks you to do some market research to understand your competitor’s products. You put together a solid PowerPoint presentation with accompanying handouts and begin to educate your boss about the market. Two minutes into the presentation your boss is rolling his eyes, tapping the table with his Montblanc pen, and sighing heavily and audibly. You pause to ask what the problem is, and he responds, “This is crap,” as he throws your handout into the trash. How do you respond? This vintage Jobs moment actually makes a significant point about the ills of contemporary public speaking, which includes developing, organizing, and delivering coherent ideas. Jobs would constantly barrage his employees when they used PowerPoint, saying, “Can’t you think on your own or does PowerPoint have to think for you?” People rely so heavily on visual aids, handouts, and interactive technology that they have almost lost their ability to think due to this technological dependence. Jobs recognized an important point that I remind every student: thinking about something includes one’s ability to defend those ideas in the process of argumentation. Jobs wanted Apple employees to talk about ideas, debate them, openly disagree and walk him through their thoughts step-by-step without the help of technology (very ironic coming from someone who wants mass consumers to be dependent on his products).
People spend too much time developing materials for presentations and too little time developing the ideas, principles, and philosophies that should guide the presentation. Jobs would often become so frustrated during PowerPoint presentations that he would walk out in the middle of them to cool down, and then come back and force the presentation team to explain their ideas (I wish I could do this in the class room). He would use a dry erase board to write down their ideas and make sure everyone was on the same page. I find it more than ironic that the most iconic technology company and entrepreneur of our era preferred to use dry erase boards at his meetings. He forced his employees to communicate their ideas orally rather than through a communication medium such as PowerPoint because he felt it improved the products being discussed and developed. Why would this be any different for other organizations or industries? It isn’t. People should stop relying so heavily on programs such as PowerPoint and instead spend the majority of their time thinking through their ideas, talking about them with people, and getting into productive arguments and debates about them. We often learn the most about ourselves, our ideas, and the world when we try to make connections with others and have to explain and defend what we think.
Are We In The Right Jungle?
Uncontrollably sobbing in board meetings. Screaming at high level executives that they are worthless. Emotional outbursts like this would get most CEOs fired from publicly traded companies…but not Jobs. Let’s just say that Jobs never came across the term “emotional intelligence.” He wore his emotions on his sleeve like a drunken Irishmen at a local pub: he always said what he thought, he would publicly cry and celebrate, he would throw temper tantrums and get into fights, and he was brutally honest at all times. These are typically not the personal qualities one associates with successful business leaders, but of course Jobs defies this conventional logic. A short parable will illustrate the rare type of leadership that Steve Jobs exhibited.
Two groups of ten men are in a jungle. Their goal is to clear a path so that vehicles can cut through the middle of the treacherous terrain, and their only resources are machetes. One man begins barking orders and his team quickly starts to hack away at the thick jungle cover. Some time passes and this team has made solid progress chopping down a path but they have a long way to go. The other ten men devised a different strategy. They decided to climb trees and see if there were any paths already created, and as luck has it, they have discovered several paths. One of the men at the top of a tree yells down to the group cutting the plants, “Hey, you are going in the wrong direction. There are already paths laid down for us, so we just need to connect them.” The leader of the machete group responds, “That may be, but we have already made progress. We are forging ahead.”
This parable demonstrates the difference between vision and mission. Leaders need to set the long term vision for an organization and help their teams accomplish their goals with the appropriate resources; leaders use creativity, focus, and intelligence to identify and articulate their vision to others. The team on the ground represents the traditional management philosophy: maintain the status quo and follow orders. To accomplish the multifaceted goals of a large organization, it is necessary to have both vision and mission, inspiring visionary thinkers to set long term goals and efficient managers to accomplish those goals on a daily basis. Steve Jobs was both of these and more. If he were in the above situation, he would have asked, “Why? How do we know we are even in the right jungle?” Jobs had the ability to see the Forest and the Trees at the same time. He could shift back and forth so quickly from long term planning to issues of intricate product design that it was almost frightening.
This type of person is intimidating because they use their confidence in themselves, their moral compass, and their vision for the world to persuade others to see the world differently. They are unnervingly convincing, and even more so because it appears they do it so naturally and without great effort. These rare souls are charismatic leaders. Charismatic leaders create very high expectations for themselves and for others, which gives people a simple choice: they can either believe in themselves to accomplish the goals or fail. Jobs built teams with “A Players,” this was his term for highly motivated and high performing employees. Jobs constantly said that high performing employees like other high performing employees. He created an environment of intelligent people who know they are good at what they do, people who were not afraid to challenge him, people who bought into his system and simultaneously helped it progress by questioning him. One aspect of Jobs’ leadership style that really stuck out was his ownership of tough decisions. He rarely passed the buck and took great responsibility for his products, his company, and his people. Running a business is not an easy enterprise because it is full of tough decisions, but Jobs did not shy away from these. In fact, they appeared to give him energy – he recognized that opportunities arise from unexpected, and even problematic, situations.
Instead of simply hacking away at what products Apple should design (mission) or trying to create a rational business plan (vision), Jobs used his iconic status to move Apple forward by becoming an effective organizational leader but also a symbol of progress for the entire technology industry. He encouraged his employees to challenge him, he spoke their language (whether that be product design, marketing, engineering, or legal services) and he streamlined the organizational structure of Apple through Deep Collaboration. He created a system with a single profit and loss line rather than forcing different departments to compete for the same resources. He not only discovered paths that others did not see, he uncovered hidden jungles that weren’t on the maps. He is a technology conquistador, and his discoveries and vision are as central to people’s lives as the land in which they come from. His products and ideas – for better or worse – are part of people’s self-identities. Only an unconventional leader could have made such significant discoveries, only an Arrogantly Confident, Brilliantly Obsessive Compulsive, Manipulatively Charming, Dogmatically Open-Minded, Brutally Honest, and Pragmatically Oversimplistic person could have accomplished such dynamic and inspiring industrial goals.
This mix of personality quirks and interaction patterns cannot be recreated.
An Insanely Brilliant Piece of Shit
By now it should be clear what Steve Jobs thought of conventional wisdom. He continually uncovered its fallibility. He rebelled against conventional thoughts and worked to cement his ideas as the zeitgeist of the time. One way Jobs showed the silliness of conventional wisdom was through one of his most despised personal characteristics: his tendency to look at a product and immediately deem it either a “piece of shit” or the “most brilliant product” ever. This type of thinking is considered fallacious, and in scholarly circles, is called the False Choice Fallacy. Sensationalized and instantaneous responses are how children respond to unfamiliar ideas. These reactionary rejoinders usually suggest a lack of critical thinking, but Jobs was clearly a very critical thinker in every sense of the term (e.g., learning through reflection, pointing out flaws, and looking for emancipation). His binary thinking strategies might have been problematic for others to deal with, but it was obviously an appropriate management style within Apple. Jobs binary thinking and dramatic comments are like going to the doctor: people don’t enjoy the experience but it is usually good for them. By calling a product, presentation or idea a “piece of shit,” it forced people to explain the features of a particular product, to redesign substandard aspects, and to better understand whatever project they were working on. I am not advocating Jobs’ quixotic, binary mode of expression but I am suggesting that it can be useful in certain situations and organizations. Many people, especially scholars, love to make something out of nothing, love to turn simple ideas into complex axioms, and love to fix things that aren’t broken. Binary thinking simplifies complex choices and ideas. When used wisely, it can liberate people and give them the ability to act swiftly rather than be paralyzed with information overload and overanalysis. He was programmed to think this way, you might think of his binary thought patterns as a manifestation of his unique animal instinct. If Steve Jobs were his own species, he would be Homo Dichotomous.
Even though he could have expressed his binary ideas and disagreements in a more “socially acceptable” manner, this would not have been Steve Jobs – and you would not be reading about it right now. There is a huge difference between an idea and the expression of that idea. Jobs simply couldn’t hide his true feelings. He couldn’t fake polite.
When I ask students to do a free association with the word “conflict,” the concepts they typically write down are angry, arguing, hostility, fighting, avoiding, destructive, and problematic. These responses are an accurate representation of how our society views conflict, but this is a very limited interpretation. Conflict is part of human nature. People have their own ideas for how things should work or how something should be organized, and when they express their ideas and others disagree, a conflict emerges. A conflict is a disagreement between two or more interdependent people who perceive that their goals are incompatible. Conflict is so normal that the average American experiences nine of them per day (and this doesn’t include latent or perceived conflicts). When people view conflict as something negative, they will do what is necessary to prevent them, avoid them, or ignore them. This is a problematic way to think about conflict, and Steve Jobs knew this.
Conflict is as much a part of human life as happiness. It surrounds us on a daily basis, from simple disagreements with a spouse to international wars and terrorism. One thing that differentiates successful leaders and businesses from unsuccessful ones is their conflict management philosophy. Now we have already established that Jobs’ personal conflict management style might not have been very effective, but the organization he constructed was built around the philosophy that conflict can be useful. Innovation, learning, growth, and even trust can emerge from conflict…when managed appropriately in a structured environment. This is the unspoken principle behind Jobs’ architectural design desires. He designed Apple’s headquarters to be a place of spontaneous genius and impromptu interactions; he wanted engineers to literally bump into product designers and marketers in the hallway and share their views about product development. His “Deep Collaboration” was built into Apple’s fabric at interactional, architectural, and organizational levels. He practiced what he preached in board room meetings, product design meetings, and even how he designed the factory floor. Jobs wanted input from multiple people to make great products, and he didn’t care about your title or your department. He just cared about great ideas.
From a communication standpoint, Apple manufactured a collaborative culture only because the top executives bought into the principles and recognized their productive potential. Cultural consultants can sell advice to help organizations restructure their culture, but unless the top level executives buy into the advice and make structural changes to achieve the advice, the organization falls back into its previous habits. Collaboration is one of those concepts that is great in principle but difficult to institute. It takes time and energy to collaborate effectively; many times collaboration feels unproductive and usurps our emotions as we argue with others over ideas. But conflict also has the potential to take us in new directions, develop answers to questions that we did not even know existed. Productive Conflict helped launch Apple from a business experiment started in Jobs’ parent’s garage to the most profitable company in the world.
Jobs built Apple in a way that mimicked his seamless end-to-end product design. He fast-tracked decision making and artfully crafted an environment that truly valued dissent. He shifted the view of conflict from merely destructive to “Creatively Destructive.”
Paradox of Provocative Passion
Eccentric. Insane. Weird. Asshole. Brilliant. Innovator. Visionary. All of these adjectives have been used to describe Steve Jobs. Trying to define Jobs is a difficult endeavor precisely because he doesn’t follow the traditional set of social, organizational, or spiritual standards. He wasn’t polite, he didn’t always reciprocate intimate self-disclosures, he didn’t believe in the need to go to college, he didn’t use “constructive” criticism, he didn’t believe in a traditional division of labor, he had irregular hygiene and dietary norms, he despised dogmatic religious philosophies and organizations, and he had no regard for formal titles, pomp and circumstance, or other organizational rituals and symbols.
It is easier for humans to point out people’s habitual wrongdoing, to expose and discuss their shortcomings, and to distance ourselves from their flaws. What makes inspirational people truly inspiring is the fact that they accomplish great feats in spite of having normal flaws. They are human. They make mistakes. What differentiates great leaders from others is that they don’t let their mistakes define them. Their provocative passion for life is both inspiring and intimidating. People are jealous of others’ accomplishments, admire them, and denigrate them all at the same time. That is the paradox of provocative passion.
When someone dedicates their life to changing the world, by nature they must live according to their own rules, they must alter the “system” to fit neatly into their own paradigm. This is what Jobs did and we are better off for it. His accomplishments outweigh his interpersonal flaws, his imperfect conflict management style, and his inability to admit when he was wrong. This crazy/smart man showed me that people can become iconic leaders through unconventional leadership behaviors. As a society, we don’t know how to feel about insanely brilliant people. We call them eccentric and weird because it is so easy to focus on their communication behaviors, their emotional outbursts, and their inability to calmly express themselves. This misguided focus causes us to miss out on an opportunity to learn something new. The following conceptual formula is what catapulted Apple to the technology titan that it Is:
+ Provocative Passion
= Steve Jobs & Apple
Steve Jobs was an idealist that created an organization in which he could actually live and share his ideals, and he made the world a more dynamic and interesting place by doing so.