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Lessons in Leadership from Steve Jobs

October 25, 2013

Conventional rules did not apply to tech visionary Steve Jobs, who operated within a “reality distortion field” according to his biographer, Walter Isaacson. “That was the main thing I learned about Steve,” Isaacson told Bloomberg employees. “[Jobs had] this passion for perfection.”

Walter Isaacson, who wrote the biography of Steve Jobs, recently talked to Bloomberg employees about management and leadership styles.

Norman Pearlstine, Chief Content Officer and Chairman of Bloomberg Businessweek, moderated the discussion about leadership with Isaacson at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters. “Walter is one of the most remarkable individuals I’ve met,” Pearlstine said in his introduction. “[He’s] an extraordinary journalist and a great writer of books, beginning with “The Wise Men,” then Kissinger, Ben Franklin, and of course, Steve Jobs.”

Isaacson set the tone immediately. “Steve Jobs’s first act when he came back to Apple,” he recalled, “was not to start doing product ads or figuring out how to build a new Macintosh and sell it to people, but how to define the values of his company. And he did it with two words: think different.”

In front of a capacity crowd, Isaacson commanded the stage, standing behind his chair, strolling across the stage, regaling the crowd with stories about Jobs’s meteoric career, and fielding questions.

Isaacson cautioned Bloomberg’s managers: “Biographies are not management how-to books.” Instead, biographies are about real, flawed people. Still, there are important management lessons to be gleaned from such personal histories. Isaacson named five lessons he learned from Steve Jobs:

1) There are two ways to run a business: focus on profits or focus on products. Jobs focused on the products, knowing that the profits would follow. The proof is in the pudding: At $441 billion (give or take), Apple’s market value is tops.

2) Simplicity reigns supreme. For Jobs, simplicity revealed itself in both the user interface and in the integrated end-to-end process. That is, the software, hardware, and content must all be intuitively connected. “Nature loves simplicity,” said Isaacson. “Kepler said it. Newton said it. Jobs said it.”

3) One must have intuition and foresight. “How do people know what they want until we show them?” Jobs once asked. One result of such intuition: the iPhone.

4) Focus. As an example of Jobs’s single-minded attention, Isaacson shared the story of an Apple retreat in which employees came up with 10 projects to work on in the coming years. Jobs struck seven items from the list, leaving three: iPad, iPhone, and iPod.

5) Have a “reality distortion field.” A good leader drives people to do things they don’t think they can do. “Don’t be afraid. You can do it,” was a mantra repeated by Jobs to his partners, recalled Isaacson.

Great leaders also leave their mark. As an example of this pride, Isaacson described how the release of the Macintosh computer was held up until the circuit board was designed just so. When it was finally ready, the team of 30 engineers engraved their signatures on the inside of the first Macintosh, where nobody could see. “Real artists,” said Jobs, “sign their work.”

Which leads to perhaps the sixth lesson to be learned from Jobs. “He created these insanely loyal teams. He pushed them to do things that were beautiful and perfect,” said Isaacson. “And that is the overall management lesson.”

Contributed by Shaun Randol, editor of On Bloomberg, Bloomberg LP’s internal newswire