What We Should and Shouldn’t Learn from the Life of Steve Jobs

Posted 10.07.2011

Steve JobsEven though it was sadly expected, the news of Steve Jobs’ passing this week hit me like a punch in the gut. Clearly, I was not alone. The outpouring of tributes and remembrances tell us something. He was an especially gifted human being who, in his own ways, helped change the world. Whether it’s explicitly articulated or not, it seems we recognize when we lose someone who was truly an original and feel that loss more acutely.

In the past day, I’ve heard or read excerpts from Jobs’ 2005 commencement speech at Stanford in dozens of stories on his life. It’s a fantastic speech. If you haven’t watched it, you should. The passage that is especially poignant is the one in which he spoke on the value of death and life:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

That’s a lesson we should all learn from Steve Jobs – make the most of the life you’ve been given and live it fully.

On the other hand, one lesson that would be dangerous for most leaders to take away from Jobs would be to emulate the many stories about how tough he could be on his staff. Even Jobs’ greatest admirers acknowledge that, in his quest for the perfect execution of his vision, he could be brutally humiliating with those who did not meet his standards. As I noted in a post this summer and was reported earlier this year by Fortune magazine, his management style could scare people.

A week or so after Jobs retired in August, one of my senior executive clients opened a conversation by asking why shouldn’t every leader follow the lead of Steve Jobs by holding their staffs’ feet to the fire and demanding perfection. My answer was because most leaders aren’t geniuses. Steve Jobs was a genius and the people who worked for him knew it and trusted it. I’ve been told by people who work at Apple that they were willing to put up with Jobs’ occasional outbursts of verbal abuse because they recognized the unique talents of their leader.

I’m reminded of the tiny type disclaimers on TV commercials when cars are zipping through a crazy course at high speeds. It usually says something like “Professional driver on a closed course. Do not attempt.” As many positive lessons as there are in the life of Steve Jobs, it would be a mistake for most leaders to attempt to emulate the tougher aspects of his style. He was about as close to one of a kind as it gets. Unless you’re truly a genius, you likely need to take a less intimidating approach to leadership.

That’s my take. What do you think? What have you learned from the life of Steve Jobs? It’s stunning to think about how much he did in only 56 years. Just imagine what he might have done with another twenty. What will you miss most about him?