3 Leadership Lessons that Steve Jobs Never Learned

Rolling Stone Magazine Steve Jobs

Imagine the potential Steve Jobs had if he had been a Leader…

A quick Google search will return descriptive words for Steve Jobs, who passed away the evening of October 5th, 2011.

  • Genius
  • Visionary
  • Perfectionist
  • Hard-driving executive
  • Brilliant
  • Creative
  • Master Showman
  • Cult Hero
  • Co-founder

Without a doubt, there is something quite amazing about watching someone who is unabashedly passionate about their craft.

That focus and energy can be contagious.

And that contagion can have a significant impact on those around them. Almost like a strong man pulling a train you are almost compelled to come along for the ride.

A Turbulent Business Career

Though Steve Jobs accomplished much and was the chief executive of some of the most recognizable companies in the world, he was also, by all accounts, very difficult to work with. He was a “hard driving and difficult boss.” His style created a challenging environment, for both individuals and for the company as a whole.

For example, after the Macintosh was released and Apple failed to gain market-share on IBM, Jobs was forced out of the company he co-founded.

His next company, called “NeXT” also failed to have the impact he hoped.

Steve Jobs the Tyrant

There are times when difficult situations are thrust upon us, through no fault of our own. And there are times when our behavior creates, or significantly contributes to, the situations we are in.

Steve Jobs’ behavioral style clearly contributed to his challenges. It is pretty well documented that the work environment for teams in the companies run by Steve Jobs was not good.

According to Robert Sutton, Stanford management science professor and author:

“As soon as people heard I was writing a book on assholes, they would come up to me and start telling a Steve Jobs story. The degree to which people in Silicon Valley are afraid of Jobs is unbelievable. He made people feel terrible; he made people cry.”

The environment under Jobs was not good. There are multiple accounts of his temper flaring and causing him to fire random employees for minor reasons, terminate important business relationships, and cause executives to resign after altercations that include personal attacks.

Paul Allen of Microsoft calls him a jerk in his memoir…

But What if He Were a Leader?

Despite the working environment, Steve Jobs was able to create change and bring innovation the likes of which have not been seen since Thomas Edison.

Make no mistake, Steve Jobs had an amazing impact on the world, through his passion and vision for what technology could do in people’s lives. That should not be minimized in any way.

But, perhaps the most telling insight to take away from the thousands of words that are pouring out to rightfully eulogize Steve Jobs is the one that is conspicuously absent: Leader.

Imagine the impact he could have had if, among all the other things, he were also a more effective Leader.

Steve Jobs Apple logo

3 Leadership Lessons that Steve Jobs Never Learned

There are 3 essential leadership lessons that it appears that Steve Jobs never learned, but you can.

1) People are more productive, creative, and innovative in an environment in which they are happy and feel valued. Period.

2) You will get more out of people if you demonstrate Versatility/Emotional Intelligence and work with them in a way they are more comfortable based on their own behavioral style. Understanding behavioral style and adjusting your approach to meet the style of the people you are leading will get you more results and higher performance.

3) It’s not about you.

Clearly, most of Steve Jobs’ career was focused on himself. He emphasized this in his famous 2005 address to the graduating class of Stanford University when he said this:

“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.”

But if you want to be a leader, you also have to understand that you cannot do it alone. As a leader, it’s not about you. It’s about the people you are trying to lead. How can you make THEM successful? Your people cannot be secondary.

Imagine how much more could have been accomplished if Steve Jobs had demonstrated more collaborative behaviors. Imagine how much more could have produced if he were easier to work with.

A Leader’s Call to Action

Don’t let yourself suffer from the same affliction that Steve Jobs did. You can learn to be a better leader. You can learn to foster an environment where people who work with you are more engaged and are happier. Do that AND tap into your own vision and creativity.

Understand the environment around you. Become aware of your behavioral style. If you aren’t aware of your style and how it impacts those working around you, then it’s definitely time to do something about that. Take a class. Attend a webinar. Read up on it.

Your people deserve it.


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David Hasenbalg is President and COO of Customized Solutions, LLC
He helps individuals and organizations achieve their objectives and their potential
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Image Sources: adapted from speaktoall.files.wordpress.com, abcnews.go.com

29 responses to “3 Leadership Lessons that Steve Jobs Never Learned

  1. Pingback: Leadership and Steve Jobs « Leading Yourself·

    • You are a brave man to write this about Steve Jobs right now! And it’s great to have some balance in the conversation about him. Two thoughts come to mind with I think of Steve Jobs. One is a idea called “circles of enlightenment”. The idea is that you can be completely “enlightened” in one area while another area is in the dark. Another is that old nursery rhyme “There once was boy with a curl in the middle of his forehead. When he was good, he was Very, Very good and when he was bad, he was horrid.”.


  2. Thanks for writing this. His success and ‘perfection’ have been on my mind since his death, and it is a relief to see someone say that he too hand weaknesses or actions he could have improved upon.


  3. Great article David. I agree completely and this just reinforces what everyone who’s ever worked for a boss with poor leadership skills knows: people will excel in spite of poor leadership because they believe in the product, not the leader.


  4. David — It’s so refreshing to read REALITY! In the wake of famous people’s deaths, eulogies tend tend toward the perfect. We should make no mistake: Steve Jobs was a genius, and he has transformed our world in ways we don’t even see yet.

    But — by all accounts — he also was an a–hole, and (as the title of my book says, and repeated several times in your post here) “It’s Not About You” is a lesson he never learned, and — unfortunately — many hard-driving executive types never learn or choose to disregard. Which makes work even less a fun place to be than it should.


  5. Steve Jobs obviously needed an executive leadership coach. An effective coach would have made him realize that his style was not conducive to true success of any company. The bottom line is only half of the story – what is the health of the team? Emotional intelligence is sometimes missing from those that are so perfectionistic and driven. In the end, people always remember what you did last and people will remember Steve for all he did. May he rest in peace.


  6. I interviewed for a job at Apple in the mid 80’s and Steve Jobs was one of the interviewers. HIs comments about my skills were so devastating that I allowed them to shake my confidence for a number of years. At that time his emotional intelligence was 0. I have not given others that much power in my life since, although I do listen to honest, caring feedback from others about ways I can improve.


  7. How can you say Steve Jobs was not a leader? Yes, he was demanding and “mercurial” is a word I’ve seen often used to describe him. But he also pulled better work out of thousands of people than they knew they had in them. Apple has a global workforce of 50,000 people, developed in about 35 years–a relatively short span of time. And it’s because of Apple’s brilliance in many areas–which Steve established–that enabled the company to attract that many best and brightest people. Steve Jobs was a leader.


  8. You said, “Imagine the impact he could have had if, among all the other things, he were also a more effective Leader.”

    I’m not sure Steve Jobs could have been any other way than he was. How many people can really be that much different than they are?

    I designed and taught leadership courses, and I created and administered a leadership program for a major university. During this time, I met creative, visionary people who empower and nurture, but can’t get initiatives off the ground. I have met “tyrants” who aren’t visionary or creative who get things done.

    I haven’t met that many people who are creative, visionary, effective, reliable, totally authentic, and who have the will and initiative to go out on a thin limb and change the world, literally along with their serious flaws.

    Regarding Apple employees, I owned a company that partnered with Apple for the first 15 years of Macintosh (1985-2000). I have NEVER worked with a more stellar, self-directed, creative, productive, energetic, and kind workforce – from Cupertino to Chicago. Believe me, they had FUN. This was not a beaten down workforce. I’m sure many couldn’t take it, but the best stuck it out and suffered the kinder gentler Scully who led Apple to near bankruptcy. Yes, Jobs was forced out, but he came back and made his company the most successful in the world. You can’t do that without being a leader and without loyal followers.

    I don’t think leadership is about achieving perfection on a list of leadership skills. I think it is about getting up and leading – about being yourself and making a difference in people’s lives. It’s not about sitting in leadership classes and becoming self righteous.

    In my opinion, it was as little or as much about Steve Jobs as it is about any leader, low or high-level, in any company or government.

    To me, this article is “too soon.” It looks like an exploitation of admitted weaknesses of a great leader who died just 5 days ago.


    • Thank you for your response. Very well written and you stated many of the thoughts that I thought of while reading. Definitely no leader is perfect, however, Jobs would not be able to create that level of success without being a leader. Some of the reference materials in the article seem to be taken out of context as well. There are always 2 sides to every story. Also, I believe Jobs was correct in his statement about putting yourself first. I have learned that when we do not take care of our own needs and fulfillment, we have little to nothing to give to others. Finally, yes, this article has been written way too soon. If given time, say even 6 months, this hastily written article might have more merit, content and facts.


    • I am replying to myself. I don’t know how my vote got to be all those stars. When I wrote it, I didn’t have them to cast my vote. It would have been 1 star. I am telling you just so you know, your average is not accurate.


  9. David, your article is brilliant and I fully agree. However… how can we be sure ? How can you be sure that if Steve Jobs had been more “balanced”, he would have been as creative ? Would Apple be leader in cutting-edge technologies if he had been less perfectionist ? What about being less fast in a fast paced technology, if you’re less tough ? Can one become more charismatic and keeping the driving energy of the ego-centric ?
    Again, I agree with you, but…


  10. After these few days an all the articles and sad news about Steve Jobs it´s exiting to read all this above. I worked with management consulting in Sweden for 18 years now. I have worked with managers from many different cultures/countrys in internationell organisations during all this time……I have also spent four years working in USA….so what I am about to say is with some experience – not as an expert – but I have found it more common in companys with american ceo:s compared with european ceo:s that there is a unhealty silence about your” top level managers”……maybe a way of companyculture?????
    Do You think that that my observeations are right or wrong?


  11. I never met Steve Jobs and like most people, all I know about him or his leadership style is heresay. Only those who have worked directly for or with him would know his leadership style intimately and only they would be properly qualified to judge him after his passing. He created wonderful things for the world and left a somewhat magical legacy. Whether or not he could have created better products or done more with a different leadership style will never really be known. That can only be the subject of conjecture. For me, it is time to enjoy what he did for the world and allow him to rest in peace.

    All the Best
    Wayne Kehl


  12. Seems a bit cruel and calloused to write such an article so soon after Mr. Jobs death. I don’t know Steve Jobs but it sounds as if neither did you. I always wonder about the motivation of people who enjoy bringing up the negative in others right after their death. I’m sure in retrospect, we could all be better leaders and people but hopefully we’ve done more good than bad. Perhaps you should lay off the throwing of stones and learn from the all the wonderful things he did instead of focusing on the shortcomings.


    • ….a tought about your comment; I like it! But I wonder – how come that so many of these with negative criticism doesn´t make their voice/opinons heard while the person is among us and could answer back…explain all these “missunderstandings or shortcomings” in their behavior…….
      How can you improve your leadership if people around you – for different reasons – won´t tell you – or if you – for different reasons – won´t listen?
      We can learn and improve leadership from many things even the tragic ones – if we have the currage to speak up or the currage to listen……
      Johan T


  13. Love Steve Jobs or not, or think David’s post is too soon, or not respectful, or (like me) right on the mark, but THIS is the kind of discussion we need to have on this site more often!

    Wonderful insights and opinions — regardless of where you come down on Jobs’ leadership skills. Clearly, he did LOTs of things right. And I agree w/ Wayne: his legacy is certainly magical.


  14. Jobs was a leader—he transformed industries (e.g. music). Just because some of us don’t appreciate how he always conducted himself, doesn’t change the fact that he was transformational. That’s leadership baby! And let’s not forget, many would walk on fire to work with him!


  15. Interesting article, David and and as expected after reading the title, some genuine outpourings of emotion, pro and con…Brilliant marketing to use the name “Steve Jobs” in a blog so soon after his death. Lots of hits today! I wish I had thought of it. 🙂

    Cheers, Wayne


  16. So what you are saying is that he was human. Funny that. But really, did he NEVER display any of those essential leadership characteristcs? I am sure there are some who would disagree.

    Shame that you chose to focus on what he wasn”t rather than what he was. Let’s give him a chance to be celebrated, for the time being at least.

    “What you see depends on what you are looking for.”


  17. Leadership styles vary as much as there are leaders – poor to good. What are the measurements for “good” or “great” leadership? I prefer to see what remains after the leader no longer leads the group. Jobs was a leader in thought and technology. His impact on our lives measured that way seems clear. And I think that we will miss his presence and thinking. Whether Apple remains the innovative force on the market and society without his presence and influence seems to be a metric worthy of consideration. Only time will tell even though we have the Scully episode to reference. It could be that his dent on the universe provided leadership for society in how we interact and express ourselves, but that same dent could have damaged others as result of interaction with his behavior. It seems to depend on personal leadership vision, philosophy and the legacy of its execution and how it was exercised to achieve that vision.

    What we value defines the criteria for what we consider to be success.


  18. Steve Jobs was a leader of 50,,000 people. The point the article misses is that he learned — to insulate himself from situations that would demotivate people. Steve lead and inspired his workforce to great things (In doing so, becoming the second most valuable brand in the world) and Inspired his clientele.


  19. IMHO – every genius is lacking in other areas. An artist may not know how to balance their checkbook. An engineer may not be comfortable in a social setting. A Wall St. investor may not be able to see past dollar signs. An athlete may not be able to understand why their child is not into sports.
    Writing a book so your family will “understand you” – speaks volumes…


  20. Pingback: The Perils of Leadership – When Leaders Collide | Coaching Leaders·

  21. With respect, I beg to disagree, David.
    To suggest that Steve Jobs was a weak leader is foolishness. It’s also pretty narrow (but convenient I guess) to hear you grade the effectiveness of his leadership by choosing to focus on qualities that you say Steve Jobs seemly lacked or missed. You propose that “happy” employees should be the mark or goal of a leader, yet seem to omit perhaps the most obvious mark of exemplary leadership: results.
    I would agree with previous posts that no human gets leadership 100% right. We are all flawed. What I would submit is that when it comes to leadership, Steve Jobs got far more right and accomplished far more through his organizations than anyone else in this century. Nitpicking at what you see as his weaknesses seems trite and your timing inappropriate.


  22. Interesting debate. For those who think this article was written too soon for bringing traffic to the website, imagine how many millions of bloggers used “Steve Jobs” as a Tag right after his death with titles like “How to lead like Steve Jobs”. so I don’t see the difference.

    I agree it is important to listen to both good and bad comments. One quality of a leader is to know how to get people who disagree with you and tell you what’s wrong. Steve Jobs did not manage 50,000 people so the motivation of his troops were probably due to a careful selection of excellent managers able to translate Steve Jobs’ ideas into something people were proud to be part of.

    No doubt Steve Jobs was very charismatic and a great speaker on stage.People either adored him or hated him. The truth is that each person has a style as an employee and work better with certain bosses and leadership styles. If you are a big picture guy and get micro-managed by a detailed oriented leader, you will probably be miserable.


  23. David, kudos for offering a balanced approach to the emotional arguments currently flooding the media about Steve Jobs. Your article provokes thought and reflection at a time when many simply emote, which often clouds the truth of a matter.

    Three thoughts came to my mind around the issue of Steve Jobs and leadership:

    1) In the Bloomberg Business Week tribute issue:
    “I worked for 72 sleepless hours for something that Steve Jobs showed on stage for 9 seconds. It’s top three, if not No.1, on my professional achievements. It didn’t look any different on that screen as it did on mine, but it was the knowledge that it was good enough to be on the stage that made it suddenly look different. I’ll never get that chance again, and I’m glad I had it.” Matt Drance, Former Apple Developer/evangelist

    Point: if leadership is about drawing out the absolute best of employees, and so letting them enjoy (discover?) the exhilaration of what they can do when they stretch, then style may be secondary. It would be interesting to discover the percentage of employees who hit personal bests at Apple, and valued that experience above the manner in which they would have preferred Jobs dealt with them. If the majority do, then it can be argued that Jobs was an effective leader.

    2) Perhaps Jobs was not typical leader. Perhaps he was an “ubermensch”; super-human in both creative abilities and personality flaws. Perhaps Jobs, like Einstein, Edison, Da Vinci, Michelangelo were not meant to lead in the conventional sense, yet actually did lead us as a society into amazing new territory simply by their sheer genius. We disliked the style, but could not resist the beauty and power of the vision, and so followed along. Perhaps that contribution was their sole destiny, and their failure in the social and humane skills came with the package. Jobs’s personal history implies deep wounds (given up for adoption, loner kid shunned by others) that no doubt account for his emotionally abusive treatment of others.

    I’m also interested to learn how he evolved. Did the abuses take place primarily in his early career? (ego can be nasty when one is already worth $100 million by age 30) Or did he mellow and grow as a person from the pain of getting fired from Apple, failing at NeXT, getting a fatal disease. The Standford speech indicates a man who, in facing his mortality, has learned something about humanity and the meaning of life.

    3) The chapter on Steve Jobs effectiveness as a leader remains to be written, as it will be Apple’s sustained success in his absence that will tell the tale. As Jim Collins would ask: was Jobs a time-teller or a clockbuilder? We will see.

    My personal experience (and most research) shows that leaders who show deep respect, compassion, and vulnerability (high emotional intelligence) for those they lead tend to elicit more loyalty, inspiration and performance results than those with abrasive styles. But I suggest those ‘rules of the leadership road’ apply to most of us. People like Steve Jobs, people of genius, see the world through such a different lens, and are so magnetic in their ideas, that sometimes we follow them anyway.

    The lesson for us may be to have enough humility to know which rules we need to follow to be effective as leader.


  24. I would prefer to work for a boss who has poor people skills and is a visionary and genius than to work for the one, who has good people skills but is stupid, which is the “nicer” example to think of. Though I don´ t like the Apple brand as the one for people who lack their own personality and need to compensate it by buying the products which would define them, I have a huge respect for Steve Jobs. I still consider him, Bill Gates and Larry Elison being the triumvirate of the world of technology. The success is measured by your achievements, which often correlate with your IQ, especially in the world of technology. People skills are just trivial and needed only because there are 7 billion people living on this planet right now. In the end you don´ t get to MIT because of your people skills…


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