That, in a nutshell, is the takeaway from Becoming Steve Jobs, a new biography of the late Apple CEO, which tries to provide nuance to the oft-told story of Jobs‘ professional rise at Apple, including the wilderness years that followed after being pushed out and his triumphant return.
The book’s authors, Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzli, suggest that much of Jobs’s professional image as a mercurial manager was shaped by „stereotypes that had been created way back in the 1980s,“ before he and Apple retreated from the press. „Perhaps that’s why the posthumous coverage reflected those stereotypes,“ the authors speculate.
Between that initial wave of press coverage and his return to Apple, Jobs‘ personality and management style shifted in subtle and not so subtle ways as a result of the struggles of NeXT, his follow-up effort, as well as inspiration from the creatives at Pixar, which he acquired and later sold to Disney. Just as importantly, the book claims Jobs was changed by falling in love with his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, and starting a family.
Some elements of Jobs‘ management style stayed consistent, however.
He continued to push for „outrageous goals,“ as the authors put it, and he could still be severe and argumentative with colleagues. Yet the book suggests that his level of discipline, empathy and flexibility increased over the years to help compensate for his negative traits.
The book provides good lessons for all leaders, insofar as Jobs has become a widely observed case study for the archetype of the genius founder. The book highlights the sometimes contradictory leadership traits of a man who is quoted in the book as saying, „I didn’t want to be a businessman,“ and then went on to become arguably the most influential businessman of his generation. Here are the most revealing anecdotes.
Even visionaries need to hear realtalk
While Jobs often acted like someone who thought he knew best, the CEO nonetheless sought out mentors in the tech industry, including the founders of Intel, Hewlett Packard, Polaroid, National Semiconductor and others. Some, like Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, would remain lifelong advisors, sometimes to the exhaustion of the mentors:
Unable to sleep that night, Steve called his friend and confidant Andy Grove at 2 a.m. Steve told Grove that he was torn about whether or not to return as Apple’s CEO, and wound his way through his tortured deliberations. As the conversation dragged on, Grove, who wanted to get back to sleep, broke in and growled: „Steve, look. I don’t give a shit about Apple. Just make up your mind.“
Steve Jobs, the father figure
At NeXT, the computer company he launched after leaving Apple, Jobs was guilty of micromanaging, making impulsive bad hires and is described as an „equal-opportunity abuser“ who yelled at engineers as well as executives. But he also tried to be more of a „father figure,“ according to one former employee quoted in the book. His paternal instincts coincided with his own first attempt at being a father to the daughter he’d had out of wedlock and publicly rejected.
„Steve hosted annual ‚family picnics‘ for his employees in Menlo Park. They were kid-oriented Saturday affairs, featuring clowns, volleyball, burgers and hot dogs, and even hokey events like sack races,“ according to the book.
Later, at Pixar, Jobs gave a top filmmaker a small bonus and demanded he use it to buy a better car. „It has to be safe, and I have to approve it,“ Jobs is quoted as saying.
When he returned to Apple, Job is compelled to cut much of the staff and reorganize, but he expresses grief in a way that the brash young Jobs may not have.
„I still do it because that’s my job,“ Jobs is quoted as telling the authors. „But when I look at people when this happens, I also think of them as being five years old, kind of like I look at my kids. And I think that that could be me coming home to tell my wife and kids that I just got laid off. Or that it could be one of my kids in twenty years. I never took it so personally before.“
No reviews, little praise for direct reports
Those who worked for Jobs could expect an earful from the executive when dealing with him on any given day, but they rarely received formal reviews and feedback. „Steve didn’t believe in reviews,“ one former employee says. „He disliked all the formality. His feeling was, ‚I give you feedback all the time, so what do you need a review for?“
Likewise, he was less than generous in doling out praise to employees. Instead, he would show it by taking the best employees on walks. „Those walks mattered,“ recalled another employee. „You’d think to yourself, ‚Steve is a rock star,‘ so getting quaity time felt like an honor in some ways.“
Jobs‘ work/life balance
Early in his career, Jobs burned the midnight oil in the office along with much of his team, but by the time he returned to Apple, he was more focused on trying to balance his work with his new family.
Rather than hover over the shoulders of star engineers and programmers, he could do much of his work via email. So he would make it home for dinner almost every night, spend time with Laurene and the kids, and then work at his computer late into the night…
On many nights, Jobs would work alongside his wife, Laurene, at home. As his wife tells the authors, „Neither of us had much of a social life. It was never that important to us.“
Make time for spirituality and meditation
Some have wondered over the years how a man who famously went off to India and embraced Buddhism could reconcile that with running the largest corporation in the world. As it turns out, he continued to meditate until he and his wife had kids, which cut down what little free time he had left. In fact, according to the book, Jobs „arranged for a Buddhist monk by the name of Kobun Chino Otogawa to meet with him once a week at his office to counsel him on how to balance his spiritual sense with his business goals.“
After his first cancer surgery in 2004, Jobs‘ leadership style changed again. He had more sense of „urgency“ to pursue innovative products, and less time and energy to handle other business issues, ranging from human resources to manufacturing.
„When he came back from that surgery he was on a faster clock,“ Tim Cook, Apple’s current CEO, tells the authors. „The company is always running on a fast-moving treadmill that doesn’t stop. But when he came back there was an urgency about him. I recognized it immediately.“
Perhaps that’s why he and his team at Apple went on to accomplish so much in the seven years he had left.