What our leaders tell us about our selves

Steve Jobs died. The outpouring of sorrow and admiration is nothing short of stunning, and more than most heads of state would engender. Jobs deserves credit for so much that Apple (and Pixar) have wrought, and a tribute to his purely technological contributions would be plenty.  But there is something intensely personal—something that speaks to us more than the phones, or laptops, or iPads—that in passing shakes us to the core and asks what we want of our leaders and of ourselves.


What Apple accomplished in the last decade is nothing short of historic.  And yet, it's what Steve Jobs tells us about ourselves—even challenges us—that makes his passing so poignant.  There is something about the way Steve Jobs ran Apple that challenges us not just to think differently but, more importantly, to act differently. 

Much could be made of Jobs’s upbringing in the Silicon Valley: a product of California’s public schools, its culture of liberalism (in the best sense of the word), and the endless opportunities of the dawning information era. Had he never taken a second turn at Apple, though, he would simply be another in a long line of cocky entrepreneurs and overnight millionaires that the valley seems to produce each generation. 

His return to Apple changed him. He became a story of redemption, of second chances and the awe-inspiring potential of a matured confidence in himself and his dreams.  He still dreamed, but his journey had given him something intangible. A way to see realize those dreams by thinking both bigger—in how to create markets where none existed before.  And, at the same time, thinking smaller by seeing which details to attend to and which to dismiss without hesitation.  

He was rarity among corporate leaders, in technology or anywhere else.  He had vision.  Sure, he could see how all of the pieces could fit together.  Actually a lot of people can do that.  But he seemed to also see how everyone else needed to see, and benefit from, that same vision.  What impressed me most about his vision, however, was that it wasn’t built from the same analysts reports, technoporn articles, and consulting decks that so many corporate strategies are built from.  Instead it was built, it always seemed, on what was the right thing to do.  What needed to be done. It's not leading when you're following others.  Jobs led.  In our own worlds, he challenged us to do the same. 

He also had the will to push his vision.  Few people are willing to admit that iron-fisted aggression is a cornerstone of innovation, but Jobs did not rebuild Apple by watching a thousand flowers bloom.  He never hesitated to impose his vision on others, demonstrating a will that would ensure his vision would come together where it mattered most—in the details. It was this will that would come to define his public personality, and make employees both fear his wrath and follow him wherever he would lead.

Finally, he had taste. Equally rare among corporate leaders, Jobs had a sense of style that drove everything he controlled. A style that, I admit, I preferred to the excesses of Wall Street's leadership or the self-absorptions of so many Silicon Valley CEOs. Like a symphony conductor, he had the vision to see what could be and the will to demand that every last detail hew to that vision—all of which would be worthless without the ear for the music.  Without that style, great companies have been built but few will mourn their passing. 

Forget the computers, the music, the apps and just imagine what his legacy would be if we expected the same vision, will, and style in all our leaders and our selves.