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Steve Jobs: 10 Lessons in Leadership

  |  October 6, 2011   |  Comments

What would Steve Jobs have done?

This column was first published in late September, less than two weeks before Jobs died Oct. 5 at the age of 56.

Just like there will never be another Socrates, Wayne Gretzky, Winston Churchill, or Gandhi, there will never be another Steve Jobs. While we can never become Steve Jobs, nor should we strive to be (follow your heart), what we can do is understand what is the greatness of Steve Jobs and, where applicable, apply these principles to help us develop as leaders.


Jobs demanded that the iPod not have any buttons on it; including an on/off switch. This seemed implausible for the engineers working on the project, but Jobs wouldn't bend. The engineers were pushed to their limits and as a result the scroll wheel was inspired. Jobs indicates "that's been one of my mantras - focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains."

The Power of "No"

Jobs is just as proud of the many products he killed over the years as the ones that were monumental successes. At one point he worked hard on a device similar to the PalmPilot, but appropriately killed it to focus on the cellphone market. What resulted was the iPod and iPhone.

Money Is Overvalued

"Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn't matter to me…Going to bed at night saying we've done something wonderful…that's what matters to me." - Steve Jobs

Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D, according to Fortune Magazine. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.

It's not What You Say; It's How You Say It

Jobs' keynotes and product launches spellbound audiences. The missing "it" factor is palpable when he's not on stage.

Not all products under Jobs were the most cutting-edge on the market, however consumers perceived them to be. Part of this was Jobs' overzealous demand of secrecy around products. This secrecy helped feed consumers' desires for the product once they were revealed.

That is the critical point - perception becomes reality. Part of Jobs' success was based on the notion that "Your customers dream of a happier and better life. Don't move products. Instead, enrich lives."

Recognize Good Ideas

Jobs and Apple did not create the computer mouse, podcasting, or the touch screen, but they recognized their value and integrated these innovations into their products.

Shun the Majority

Jobs' actions epitomized the mantra of "if the majority was always right, then we'd all be rich." Like Henry Ford before him who indicated "If I'd asked people what they wanted, they would say a faster horse," Jobs typically eschewed focus groups and gave the public what he thought they needed. This worked the majority of the time, and when it didn't, it was a chance for him to fail forward into the next project, taking the lessons with him.

"Here's to the crazy one, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes…because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do." - Steve Jobs

Eat Your Own Lunch

There is a saying in Silicon Valley that you need to eat your own lunch before someone else does. Jobs had the conviction to do this with the introduction of the iPhone, knowing full well it would and did cannibalize the sales of the flagship iPod. Letting go of the familiar and embracing the unknown is a real test of leadership.

Strive for Perfection

The night before the opening of the first Apple store, Jobs didn't like the look of the tiles, so he had them all ripped up and replaced. Right before the iPod launched, Jobs had all the headphone jacks replaced so that they were more "clicky."

Small Teams

Jobs didn't want his iPhone team to be muddled with preconceived notions around the cellphone market and had the team placed in a separate building. While this rubbed some employees the wrong way for not being selected, the results are irrefutable.

The original Macintosh team had 100 members. Whenever it reached 101 members, it would have to reshuffle and remove someone from the team. Jobs' belief was that he could only remember 100 names. (Source: Leander Kahney, "The 10 Commandments of Steve")

Follow Your Heart

As Jobs has said: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today? And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."

This column was originally published Sept. 26, 2011.

Related reading:

"Marketing Lessons From Apple," by Bryan Eisenberg, Jan. 4, 2008
"Sell Experiences, Not Products," by Mark Kingdon, March 15, 2005
"The Digital Lifestyle Wars," by Jeremy Lockhorn, March 21, 2001



Erik Qualman

Called a Digital Dale Carnegie, Erik Qualman is the author of best sellers Socialnomics (2009) and Digital Leader (2011). Socialnomics made the #1 Best Sellers List in seven countries and was a finalist for "Book of the Year." Fast Company Magazine lists Qualman as a Top 100 Digital Influencer. He is a frequently requested international speaker and has visited 42 countries. He produced the world's most viewed social media video series and it has been used by NASA to the National Guard.

He has been fortunate to share the stage with Julie Andrews, Al Gore, Tony Hawk, Sarah Palin, Jose Socrates (Prime Minister of Portugal), Alan Mulally, and many others. For the past 17 years Qualman has helped grow the digital capabilities of many companies including Cadillac, EarthLink, EF Education, Yahoo, Travelzoo, and AT&T. He is also an MBA Professor at the Hult International Business School. Qualman holds a BA from Michigan State University and an MBA from The University of Texas. He was Academic All-Big Ten in basketball at Michigan State University and recently gave the commencement address at the University of Texas. He lives in Boston with his wife and daughter.

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