What can we learn about leadership from Steve Jobs?

Identifying a gap in the market is one thing, but developing new technology to fill it is another. Doing this repeatedly is rare indeed. Let’s face it, we aren’t all going to have a hand in pioneering personal computers, CGI animation powerhouses, home printers, the mp3 player, smartphone and tablet computer. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from Steve Jobs.

Regular workplace tasks can lead to complacency, the familiarity of the process resulting in unwillingness to take on new and improved methods. What Steve Jobs demonstrated is that it’s worth looking at new ways of doing things to shake things up and make money. In business terms, continually changing systems is counter-productive, but keeping a constant lookout for ways to improve efficiency means you can avoid complacency by deploying well-timed changes that fire the imagination of your target audiences, both internal and external.

Sometimes the best timing involves a lengthy delay. Jobs acquired the computer graphics department of Lucasfilm in 1986, and this eventually became Pixar, crediting Jobs as Executive Producer in 1995’s Toy Story. You might not change cinema, but new technologies, practices and patience can yield great dividends at work.

There was something about Steve Jobs approach that has ensured the continuing success of his products. Apple has been able to continually evolve and adapt, meaning their products developed – and thus lasted - in a way that, say, Mini-Discs and pagers haven’t. Central to this was Jobs’ stressing of the vital importance of great design. Despite being thoroughly immersed in the technology, Jobs was probably more involved in the aesthetics and marketing. It was a rare combination, but one that if you, as a business leader, can emulate then it will bring its own rewards. ‘Creative and Commercial’ sums it up, but it’s really hard to achieve!

Very few people still use an iMac, but we all remember the image. Likewise, people remember Jobs as an image himself, tall and thin in a turtleneck, geeky and casual. In terms of marketing, Jobs’ industry presentations were like a microcosm of his persona – engaging and charismatic almost to the point of warping reality. Behind the scenes, Jobs was incredibly driven and not infrequently ruthless, but that’s not the impression he gave to the outside world.

Leadership involves standing out from the crowd and image is therefore vital, not just in terms of the way you dress but how you present yourself. The symbiotic confidence between Steve Jobs and his company was obvious from his public appearances. Apple is almost unrecognisable from its beige, early 1990’s persona and it was Steve Jobs who inspired and drove it to become the company it is today – the company that has just posted the largest ever quarterly profit in business history.

Jobs was constantly seeking new ways of doing things and enhancing these improvements with a commitment to aesthetics. The main leadership lessons from his life are that we should seek to be the cause of, not the reaction to, inspired revolutionary ideas and to cultivate an image for yourself that persists in the consciousness of business and public alike.

Rob Moore, Managing Director, TCMO

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