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the manager

Steve Jobs focused on his passion: building a company known for great products. 'Everything else was secondary,' he told his biographer, Walter Isaacson.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Walter Isaacson's stimulating biography of Steve Jobs spurred readers to consider what messages they could draw for their leadership repertoire from the late CEO of Apple Inc. Many commentators published their suggested lessons from the book, Steve Jobs, and now Mr. Isaacson has weighed in with his own list, for Harvard Business Review, including:


Making use of his Zen training, Mr. Jobs relentlessly filtered out distractions. When he returned to the helm of Apple in 1997 after being ousted in the 1980s, he was aghast at the many computers and peripherals being produced. On a whiteboard, he drew a two-by-two grid with the top labels reading Consumer and Pro, and side labels reading Desktop and Portable. He told his staff they were now to produce just one item for each of the four categories. He also brought focus to executive retreats, ritualistically ending them with the group members choosing 10 things to do next.


The urge to focus was augmented by his instinct to simplify: zeroing in on the essence and eliminating unnecessary components. As the first marketing brochure for Apple declared: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

For Mr. Jobs, simplicity came not by ignoring complexity but rather by conquering it – understanding the machine elements totally, to make a better functioning device. When looking for new markets, he studied categories where products were more complicated than they needed to be.

When behind, jump ahead

When innovating, Mr. Jobs didn't merely try to catch up to other companies, he looked for ways to leapfrog over them. When the trend to burning compact disks took off, Apple was caught wanting: The slot drive on its devices couldn't burn CDs. Mr. Isaacson points out that Mr. Jobs didn't simply match competitors on that; instead, he created the iPod and iTunes store – reinventing access to music.

Put products before profits

Mr. Jobs put aside concerns about costs or price to build what he called "insanely great products," and warned his designers to avoid compromises. "My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary," he told Mr. Isaacson, including the profits that he recognized helped Apple to make superb products.

Mr. Jobs noted that under John Scully, CEO during the interregnum after his ouster, the goal became to make money. "It's a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything – the people you hire, who gets promoted, what you discuss in meetings," Mr. Jobs observed.

Don't be a slave to focus groups

Mr. Jobs cared deeply about what consumers wanted, but he also felt that they often couldn't explain their needs: "Customers don't know what they want until we show them." Often the only focus group was his intuition.

Bend reality

In a fabled Star Trek episode, aliens created a convincing alternative reality through sheer mental force. Mr. Jobs often did the same, giving impossible deadlines to colleagues and vendors, assuring them they could succeed. As the biography showed, time and time again they did. He made reality what he wanted it to be.

Special to The Globe and Mail