10 Lessons from Steve Jobs, The World’s Most Visionary Asshole

Steve Jobs Holding iPhone
Steve Jobs Holding iPhone

I just finished reading the incredibly well done 600-page Steve Jobs autobiography, which I surprised myself with by ploughing through the book in about five days. I absolutely could not put this story down. The bedroom, the dinner table, the couch, the *ahem* bathroom was all fair game, this book is officially red flagged Seinfeld-style.

Steve Jobs was one of the most visionary people in history, yes history.  Forget being prophetic in the 20th/21st century, or the tech industry, Jobs created product after product that completely disrupted existing industries and he created these products without any market research, doing so on his own gut instinct of what consumers wanted.  Few people in history have changed cultures around the world the way Steve Jobs did.

That said, (albeit I obviously didn’t know him personally) Steve Jobs might also be one of the rudest people I have ever read about.  He was rude to family, disowning his daughter and claiming he wasn’t her father (despite a paternity test confirming otherwise) for nearly the entire first ten years of her life.  He was rude to friends, refusing to give his best friend Daniel Kotte who became employee number 13 at Apple any stock options because he felt he wasn’t worthy of them.  He was rude to coworkers, calling many of their ideas “shit”, “the worst thing he’s ever seen.” And on and on and on.

The book portrays Steve Jobs in his early years as visionary, but hampered by his rudeness.  Midway through the book (and Steve Jobs’ life) the writer elegantly, without my realizing it, pivots Jobs’ salty demeanour towards more of a salty-but wildly effective style of management that became the key driver of saving Apple from certain bankruptcy.

Steve Jobs with Macintosh
Steve Jobs with Macintosh

By the end of the book you realize how effective Steve Jobs was in his career, and how his leadership style -asshole and all- was critical in shaping the world we now know today.  Here are of the most important takeaways I had that anyone can apply to their careers:

  1. Great Products over Great Profits.  Steve Jobs’ was obsessed with creating “Insanely Great” products; he cut no corners, spared no expense, and demanded an unbelievably high standard of perfection from his team. He did this while launching Apple and creating a billion dollar company, and he did this same thing when saving Apple in the late 90s.  This lead to the products that have shaped our culture: the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone.  He openly criticized focusing on profits first as mid-80s to early-90s Apple CEO John Sculley saying “Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money.  It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything: the people you hire, who gets promoted, what you discuss in meetings.”
  2. Be Yourself, Even if You’re an Asshole.  Jobs knew what he was good at and he did it extremely well, even though that meant that he was really good at being rude in order to focus his company on creating only exceptional products.  Never, throughout the hundreds of pages of the book do you get a sense that Steve Jobs was trying to be something he wasn’t (as source of inner turmoil for many people).  Jobs said “My job is to say when something sucks rather than sugarcoat it.” As the author says “Polite and velvety leaders who take care to avoid bruising others, are generally not as effective in forcing change.” I don’t mean this to say that you should try to be an ass like Steve Jobs was, but you should be honest enough and create a culture in your company where you can be candid, even if it might hurt someone’s feelings.
  3. Draft and Retain Only A-Players. A great deal of Steve Jobs’ focus was spent wooing stars from other companies to come to Apple, then weeding through the team members getting rid of those who weren’t outstanding.  He said that he learned through his ownership of Pixar that A-Players only want to work with A-Players, and he created two-multi billion dollar companies (Apple and Pixar) built on getting A-Players then getting those A-Players to work like superstars.  Steve said that many managers, for financial reasons or perhaps because they’re threatened that A-Players will take their job, focus on getting B-Players and trying to get A-Performance out of them, which simply doesn’t happen because you develop a B-culture and any A-Players who are in such a company become discouraged by the ragtag bunch they’re stuck with.
  4. Build One Company and only ONE COMPANY.  This sounds stupid, but when you think about it the way that companies are typically organized is stupid.  Companies typically have divisions, cells, business lines, industry focuses, whatever you want to call them, each with their own planning, budgeting, targets, systems, often competing with the other divisions within their own company for resources.  Steve Jobs organized Apple in such a way that each and every decision maker knew what the rest of the company was doing, he did this so that they could collaborate and work towards the one single goal of making Apple -not their division- successful.  Current CEO Tim Cook explains, “We don’t have ‘divisions’ with their own P&L (profit and loss), we run one P&L for the company.”
  5. Tell Market Research to Kiss Off.  Steve Jobs rarely, if ever, did market research to find out what consumers wanted.  Rather, he saw where people’s desires and habits were trending and he drove towards creating “insanely great” products that met consumers at the exact time they were ready to adopt those products.  Think about it, no one knew they needed to operate a computer that had a graphical (picture based) user interface or a mouse before the Macintosh came out, nobody knew they absolutely needed a cell phone that had millions of different downloadable Apps with which they could use every day.  To quote Steve who was quoting Henry Ford (damn quotes get points across so well) “Our job is to figure out what they’re going to before they do.  I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, “A faster horse. People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” This is certainly true when creating wildly innovative products and services.

Those five tips are very big picture, but Steve Jobs also had several habits that I find to be excellent useful tidbits of day-to-day Steve:

  1. YOU decide when meetings start.  When the Pixar team, which at the time was a division of LucasFilm, was negotiating the purchase of Pixar with Steve Jobs they had a plan to seize control of a meeting by having their CFO walk into a negotiation meeting late.  At the time the meeting was scheduled to start the CFO, LucasFilm’s most critical person in the negotiation, as planned hadn’t yet arrived.  As the Pixar team sat there grinning and thinking about how they were taking control of the meeting from the “Great Steve Jobs”, Steve proceeded to start the meeting without the CFO present, seizing power for himself and making the CFO look like an idiot for not being on time to such an important meeting.  Beyond being rude, being late to a meeting might cause you to lose your power in that meeting.  If you’re running a meeting and people are late, start anyway, if your time is valuable enough to be in a meeting it’s important not to waste that time by waiting.
  2. Powerpoint is a crutch for people who can’t think. Besides believing that Apple’s “Keynote” presentation software was much better Steve Jobs hated Powerpoint presentations, often stopping them just several slides in.  I’ve often thought that presentation slides were a helpful way of organizing my thoughts to get my point across.  Steve Jobs saw it a different way, and now I do too: “I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking,” Steve said, “People would confront a problem by creating a presentation. I wanted them to engage, to hash things out at the table, rather than show a bunch of slides.  People who know what they’re talking about don’t need Powerpoint.”
  3. Have fun.  This seems simply, but for all the seriousness and brash rudeness of Steve Jobs he still had fun.  In 2010 U2’s Bono injured his back, having to cancel his world tour.  Days later he received a package from Steve Jobs which contained, among other things, a DVD box set of Flight of the Concords and a note which read “Pain Cream-I love this stuff.”.  Flight of the Concords is one of my favourite comedy shows of all time, and it’s probably one of the most pointless and silly.  Even the laser focused Steve Jobs had time to love Flight of the Concords.
  4. Be Charming. This was one of Steve’s most incredible qualities.  Within the same meeting Steve Jobs was able to tell someone their idea was a “Piece of shit,” or “The worst thing he’s ever seen,” only to follow those harsh comments up with a rousing speech that motivated the employee, who he just ripped to shreds, to work hundreds of hours of overtime and accomplish things they believed to be impossible.  Motivation, inspiration, and drive go a long way in leading a team.
  5. Make Your Business and Your Products Romantic.  Think a chunky brick-shaped cell phone is romantic? How about a  glorified USB stick? Probably not, but Steve managed to turn the iPhone and the iPod into cultural icons.  If you’ve ever purchased one of these items you can probably clearly remember the feeling of that suction-cupped “WHOOSH” when opening the box they came in. Or the strangely satisfying feeling of peeling off the wrapping that protects the screen.  Steve understood that experience and perception is everything. He took meticulous care in designing every single interaction an Apple customer would have with his company, and the result is a very clearly distinguishable Apple experience that has developed a cult-like following.  No matter how basic you think your business is, think about how you can make the experience your customer has with your product or service unique to you.

Steve Jobs QuoteWhile Steve Jobs himself said that he could be an ass, often using it to get out of doing things he didn’t want to do, he learned over his lifetime to use his drive, focus, and candidness to direct a company into creating amazing products and services.

Two days into the book I found myself saying to my wife Kim “Steve Jobs sounds like a real idiot, he was an ass and missed the boat on a lot of things.” Just two days later I was enthralled by the unique thought patterns Steve had, the incredible way he saved Apple from the brink of bankruptcy to create the world’s most valuable company, his openness and honest behaviour even when he knew it didn’t make him extremely well-liked.

apple logo and steve jobs
apple logo and steve jobs

By the end of the book I was so emotionally invested in Steve that I shed some tears (which I normally only do while watching a movie where a dog dies to save it’s master, that always gets me).  Those tears are a microcosm of how Steve Jobs captivated the world, not just creating neat products that we use day-to-day, rather his products straddle a line between utility and emotional connection that we wouldn’t feel if it weren’t for Steve Jobs.