The real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs (according to his biographer)

Walter Isaacson says some 'fixate too much on the rough edges of his personality'

The death last October of Steve Jobs and the release soon after of a massive biography chronicling the life of the legendary entrepreneur has spawned a small cottage industry of writers and consultants seeking to distill the Apple co-founder's managerial and creative genius. But according to Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs, many of the people who have tried to draw lessons on management from the book have tended to "fixate too much on the rough edges of his personality." In an article posted on Harvard Business Review, Isaacson argues:

The essence of Jobs, I think, is that his personality was integral to his way of doing business. He acted as if the normal rules didn’t apply to him, and the passion, intensity, and extreme emotionalism he brought to everyday life were things he also poured into the products he made. His petulance and impatience were part and parcel of his perfectionism.

Isaacson asserts that "a century from now" business schools will be trying to figure out how Jobs created such a successful, enduring company. In his HBR column, Isaacson tries to give those B-schools a head start by listing what he considers the keys to Jobs's success. There's a bunch of them, and Isaacson's column runs seven pages online, but here are just a few: Focus According to Isaacson, focus "was ingrained in Jobs’s personality and had been honed by his Zen training. And while this laser-like focus at the expense of everything else caused family members and colleagues enormous frustration, it helped save Apple when Jobs returned from exile in 1997. Jobs famously ordered Apple's product team members to cut the number of products the company makes (including 12 versions of the Macintosh) to just four. Jobs told Isaacson, “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do. That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.” Take Responsibility End to End If this seems like the ultimate in control freakery, that's because it is. But Jobs's need to control was fueled in part by his "passion for perfection and making elegant products," Isaacson writes.

He got hives, or worse, when contemplating the use of great Apple software on another company’s uninspired hardware, and he was equally allergic to the thought that unapproved apps or content might pollute the perfection of an Apple device.

Obsessive, sure, but umpteen million Apple fanboys can't be wrong. Jobs created products that people love, and clearly his willingness to take "end-to-end responsibility for the user experience," as Isaacson describes it, was a big part of the successful formula. When Behind, Leapfrog This is what separates the modern Apples from the modern Research in Motions and Nokias. Merely getting back into the game isn't going to cut it if you're trying to become a player. You need to re-set the bar and redefine the terms of the market. That's what Jobs did, Isaacon writes, after it became clear that the original iMac was missing the digital music boat:

People with PCs were downloading and swapping music and then ripping and burning their own CDs. The iMac’s slot drive couldn’t burn CDs. “I felt like a dope,” Jobs said. “I thought we had missed it.”

But instead of merely catching up by upgrading the iMac’s CD drive, he decided to create an integrated system that would transform the music industry. The result was the combination of iTunes, the iTunes Store, and the iPod, which allowed users to buy, share, manage, store, and play music better than they could with any other devices.

Contrast that with how RIM and HP last year entered the tablet market created by Apple's iPad. Both companies released tablets that weren't nearly as good as the iPad yet were priced identically. Worse, the PlayBook and TouchPad were developed in response to the original iPad, but Apple already had released the iPad 2 in March 2011, ahead of RIM and HP's debut tablets. So not only did HP and RIM fail to leapfrog Apple in the tablet market, they even failed to catch up. Isaacson cites many more keys to Jobs's success in the HBR piece. It's a good read.

Chris Nerney writes ITworld's Tech Business Today blog. Follow Chris on Twitter at @ChrisNerney. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

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