Walter Isaacson: The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs

“His saga is the entrepreneurial creation myth writ large: Steve Jobs cofounded Apple in his parents’ garage in 1976, was ousted in 1985, returned to rescue it from near bankruptcy in 1997, and by the time he died, in October 2011, had built it into the world’s most valuable company,” Walter Isaacson writes for Harvard Business Review. “Along the way he helped to transform seven industries: personal computing, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, retail stores, and digital publishing. He thus belongs in the pantheon of America’s great innovators, along with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Walt Disney. None of these men was a saint, but long after their personalities are forgotten, history will remember how they applied imagination to technology and business.”

“One of the last times I saw him, after I had finished writing most of the book, I asked him again about his tendency to be rough on people. ‘Look at the results,’ he replied. ‘These are all smart people I work with, and any of them could get a top job at another place if they were truly feeling brutalized. But they don’t,'” Isaacson writes. “Then he paused for a few moments and said, almost wistfully, “And we got some amazing things done.” Indeed, he and Apple had had a string of hits over the past dozen years that was greater than that of any other innovative company in modern times: iMac, iPod, iPod nano, iTunes Store, Apple Stores, MacBook, iPhone, iPad, App Store, OS X Lion — not to mention every Pixar film.”

Isaacson writes, “I once asked him what he thought was his most important creation, thinking he would answer the iPad or the Macintosh. Instead he said it was Apple the company. Making an enduring company, he said, was both far harder and more important than making a great product. How did he do it? Business schools will be studying that question a century from now. Here are what I consider the keys to his success.”

The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs
• Focus
• Simplify
• Take Responsibility End to End
• When Behind, Leapfrog
• Put Products Before Profits
• Don’t Be a Slave To Focus Groups
• Bend Reality
• Impute
• Push for Perfection
• Tolerate Only “A” Players
• Engage Face-to-Face
• Know Both the Big Picture and the Details
• Combine the Humanities with the Sciences
• Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

Much more in the full article – very highly recommended – here.


  1. Steve Jobs, showman extraordinaire, P.T. Barnum par excellence, snake charmer, RDF emanator, corporate Titan, all rolled into one.

    He did what no test pilot could do – rescue a jet that was spinning wildly out of control, gimbal locked, all systems red, flames coming out of the manifold, tumbling end over end. He not only piloted it to a successful landing but was able to spin the craft in several loop the loops just for the fun of it to awe the spectators on the ground.

    Steve, your keynotes were legendary. It inspired me and many like me to believe in Apple, to believe that Apple made the best products because the rest didn’t seem to care any more.

    We miss you. God speed, John Glenn, God speed, Steve Jobs. A rocket couldn’t contain your genius.

    1. Yes – and Jobs for me – was not that car salesmen showmanship style person — but a — pure inspirational passion – down to earth – easy to understand – mixed with a sense of joy similar to opening that present on christmas day.
      He made it fun. I don’t get that with Cook no matter how great he is. Some one needs to embrace the same sensitivity and passion… not to copy Jobs but to excite. Time will tell.

      1. Hmmmmm… I really like Tim Cook. I think he’s the perfect successor to Steve Jobs. He’s the man who is taking Apple to the next several levels beyond even Steve’s capabilities.
        Don’t get me wrong. Jobs was unique. But now Apple really needs a CEO who can continue to master and grow the worlds greatest company … forward.
        I like Tim’s quiet but determined presentation style. And it will only get better with time.

    1. more productive
      not drinking too much
      regular exercise at the gym (3 days a week)
      getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
      at ease


  2. Focusing on the end user capability, durability & ease of use are the core issues in a product and Jobs made sure Apple’s crew never forgot that in creating insanely great products.

    Lots of the other words just logically follow on from the basics in those first 4 lines from Isaacson above to attain core goals.

  3. if you’re the best at something, the money takes care of itself. Let your work define you not the money. All these multimillionaires and they work harder today than yesterday. They stay hungry and foolish by accomplishing things. Most companies after they mint millionaires, get soft.

  4. the focus is useless without the purpose. the purpose behind steve jobs was to touch people’s souls while everyone else is trying to touch their wallets. the people who focus on him roughing up others and being the imperfect genius, will never get it. little people can’t understand big people. there is a calm elegance in seeing the big picture. few can do that. steve did. his legacy was making the big picture come true. it is OK to do the RDF thing if you can keep your promises. steve kept his promises. this is different than say a politician who makes promises someone else has to keep. steve made them and took the responsibility to keep them.

    some will be able to find a flaw in his behavior or decision making. what sets steve apart is he was above trying to be a perfectionist. he knew that perfection requires sub-optimizing your potential. what is the purpose of perfection anyway? to obtain someone else’s approval?

  5. over and over again pundits weigh in Steve Jobs being ‘rough’, ‘tough’, etc to others.

    thing is was he FAIR?

    if he was fair, than being ‘tough’ or even ‘mean’ is necessarily. Look around the offices and Government departments with bunches of incompetents and tell me you don’t sometimes want a boss to ‘Kick Azz’ ??

  6. I wish he would have just said “OS X”, not “Lion”. I’d like to think the reason Lion is so terrible is that Steve had much less to do with it than past OSes, or that it’s just a transition to something that’s as good as Snow Leopard.

    Lion is the first time I’ve been truly disappointed in an Apple product in the last 10-15 years, and the ONLY time Mac OS X has failed to inspire or impress me.

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