January 13, 2012 | Leadership

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs — though not exactly the kind that the US economy is so desperately seeking. I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, which raises some very challenging questions about business and business leadership.

The wrong lessons?

I’ll say right off that while I admire many of his achievements – Pixar, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, etc., the story of Apple and Jobs is the story of my own coming of age after all — I am very concerned that business people and the folks who comment on business will take away many bad lessons from this story.  For example, you could conclude that if you want to change the world you need to be rude, disrespectful, self-absorbed, abusive and one-dimensional. As Sue Halpern noted in her review of the book in the New York Review of Books, Steve Jobs cried a lot, not because he had emotional depth, but because he didn’t get what he wanted.

You might also conclude that making really cool gadgets changes the world.  Well I suppose in a sense it does, but does that change make a difference – in the quality of people’s lives, in the health of the planet?  Apple’s principal manufacturer in China of the iPhone is a notorious violator of workplace and environmental standards. More delicately, should we conclude that a single-minded focus on work and on your company, buttressed by an unshakable faith in your own ideas, is the path to success?  Steve Jobs died at 56 of pancreatic cancer, which he himself attributed to his inhuman work load when he was running both Pixar and Apple, after refusing the early surgery that his physician and his family urged upon him.

More positive lessons

So, what exactly can we profitably take from the career of Steve Jobs?  There are several, I think, that are not linked to one flawed individual’s personality.

First, I believe, is the paramount importance of design. Vetruvius defined good design over 2000 years ago in terms of beauty, utility and ruggedness. Jobs was passionate that his products looked good – inside and out, worked well and easily and were robust. He insisted on these qualities often to the detriment of price/cost objectives and I believe that is the right priority.  No one thought that a $600 dollar cellphone would find a mass market but then no one envisioned the iPhone. If we are going to populate the planet with gadgets, we should care passionately that they at least look good, work well and last.

Second, although he was terrible at keeping them, Jobs insisted on having the very best talent on his team. For all his self-absorption he understood the importance of having the very best talent and he had a talent for finding the best and attracting them to his vision.

Finally, Jobs was a visionary.  He looked past the next financial period, the next planning cycle. He was not always right but he was always trying to see where the future lay. I believe this commitment, this discipline of trying to see the big picture, even in the swamp filled with alligators, is the essential quality of leadership and is essential to the success of any organization.

I believe you do not have to be difficult to work with, one dimensional or a workaholic to put these lessons into practice.