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February 2022

The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs

The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs 150 150 Cypher

The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs

Six months after his death, the author of Steve Jobs’ biography, Walter Isaacson, wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review magazine. It first appeared in April 2012 called the Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs.

In it Isaacson was trying to use some of Jobs’ most heralded traits as lessons every would-be successful CEO can try to adopt. There are 14 lessons in all. I haven’t critiqued them all, but Alan and I discussed a few on the Mind Your Business Podcast.

Push for Perfection
Isaacson writes that during the development of almost every product he ever created, at a certain point Jobs “hit the pause button” and went back to the drawing board because he felt it wasn’t perfect. He stopped production and rewrote the Toy Story Movie along with director John Lasseter to make it friendlier, he decided to delay the opening of Apple stores so layouts could be reorganised around activities and not just product categories and famously he did the same with the initial I-Phone design because the prototype came with an aluminium case that Jobs felt competed with the display too much, making it too masculine, task-driven and efficient, so he asked the team – after nine months of designing – to change it.

Disconcertingly, this advice flies in the face of what I tell a lot of my clients.  In my experience, when business owners are launching something new, they often get crippled by searching for perfection and we have a mantra at Cypher that ‘version one’ is better than ‘version none’. My view, which is shared by Agile developers the world over, is that getting something out there and then refining it, ideally with the customer in mind is the best way for SMEs to go.

Now of course when Steve Jobs first introduced us to the I-phone, which was an I-pod, a computer and a phone all in one and all in your hand, many considered it was perfection. He was famous for setting new standards- it gave Apple its blue-sky space ahead of the competition and while it has been improved on 15 times since its launch, every other smart phone in history owes its existence to Jobs and his strive for perfection.

But I think the reality for smaller business owners, who don’t have the R&D budget that Apple enjoys, is that ‘good enough’ is often good enough. So aim high, perfect what you can but don’t lose out to procrastination.

This is a rather awkward word that essentially means judging a book by its cover. Jobs was obsessed with how the packaging looked and felt as he thought this had a large impact on how the product – and by association the brand-was perceived. Jobs believed that unboxing an iPhone or iPad should be ritual-like theatre and herald the glory of the product inside. He wanted to set the tone for the tactile experience the product offered.

There feels like some synergy here between pushing for perfection and the ‘Impute’ ethos of making the packaging for whatever you are selling look and feel as good- if not better- than the actual product itself.

One of the banks we use is Tide, I got my credit card through from them the other day and it was a completely different experience. The box has a ribbon on it and as you pull the ribbon the box unfolds and the card pops up. It’s a wow moment for what is a very simple product. Tide is a challenger brand, they are modern, they are funky and they have thought about every touchpoint along the customer journey.

We aim for something similar at Cypher; from the first meeting to the proposal to being on-boarded we have tried to create a seamless journey. There is no point in the journey where the standard drops and we deliver something that’s fundamentally different quality from the first thing that we deliver. There is nothing worse than contacting a plumbing business that differentiates itself by offering a 24-hour call out service and getting the answer phone at 3AM telling you to call back at 8AM.

Never underestimate the power of perception of how you do one thing is how you do everything.

Isaacson highlights that Steve Jobs could adopt a Zen-like focus at any given moment, which was accompanied by an unerring ability to simplify things by zeroing in on their essence and eliminating unnecessary components. It came, according to Isaacson, from his time working the night shift at Atari as a college dropout. Atari’s games came with no manual and needed to be uncomplicated enough that even a stoned freshman could figure them out.

Jobs aimed for the simplicity that comes from conquering, rather than merely ignoring, complexity.

Now before Christmas, I was on the lookout for a new car. I spent time with many brands, some that have dealership networks and some that don’t and I landed on a Tesla. You can read my thoughts on why an electric car is the way to go.  The car came with few options; how big do you want the battery to be, what colour do you want and what colour do you want the seats to be? That’s it.

In contrast, my dad wanted an electric VW and that had some 37 different base models before even considering colours and additions. Now he wasn’t even bothered about the majority of the things VW were trying to sell him and in the end he got so fed up with all the questions that he went for a Tesla too.

There’s a simplicity to the buying process that brands like Polestar and Tesla have reimagined and often a simplicity to a product that is easy to define and that is key to any business.

Engage face to face.
Despite being a denizen of the digital world, or maybe because he knew all too well its potential to be isolating, Jobs was a strong believer in face-to-face meetings. He believed that creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. He even had the Pixar building designed to promote unplanned encounters and collaborations.

At its heart is a central atrium. The front doors, the main stairs and corridors all led to the atrium; the café and the mailboxes were there; the conference rooms had windows that looked out onto it and the 600-seat theatre and two smaller screening rooms all spilled into it.

We are in the situation, like so many businesses, where we operate a hybrid working pattern. Some days we are in the office, some days we’re at home. We have tried to keep everyone together through daily Zoom calls but even then that can be done in isolation and the knowledge from them is never shared.

Just think of the information we pick up consciously or sub consciously from hearing a colleague on the phone. How much do we absorb, just be listening to other people’s conversations with the customers. How much have we missed over the last two years just by not being able to listen to other people’s conversations with the customers? If it’s not written down, it’s not put into a system it won’t be known to others.

This article was written almost 10 years ago, the world has since shifted on its axis and we have all had to learn to work differently, but I think Isaacson’s synopsis of some of the great Steve Jobs’ idiosyncrasies and quirks are a very good reminder from beyond the grave about the effectiveness of his approach.

The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs
Take Responsibility End to End
When Behind, Leapfrog
Put Products Before Profits
Don’t Be a Slave To Focus Groups
Bend Reality
Push for Perfection
Tolerate Only “A” Players
Engage Face-to-Face
Know Both the Big Picture and the Details
Combine the Humanities with the Sciences
Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

Find out more

Get in touch if you you have any questions.

Leadership Styles

Leadership Styles 150 150 Cypher

Leadership Styles

The leadership style we choose can be so effective but also so limiting. We reinforce a view of our own style by using personality tests like Myers-Briggs or DISC profiling but the danger here is that these tools present us with a style or a type we feel stuck with. We are pigeon-holed. We view the world – and our leadership style- from the box we are put in.

There is a common view that like our personality type, our leadership style is fixed. Using the popular Six Leadership Styles, highlighted by Daniel Goleman as a framework for this argument, it means that we are either a commander, or a visionary; a democrat or a coach, a pace-setter or we use a more affiliative approach to maintain harmony and keep the peace.

But what if our leadership style – and our personality type- weren’t fixed and we could access all of the options Goleman has highlighted? What if we could pick and choose a style that provided the best results from any given scenario?

The thing is we can!

Thinking outside the leadership box
The Myers-Briggs test was created in the 1940s by Carl Jung. He suggested that based on 93 questions it could group us all into 16 different discrete “types” — and in doing so, serve as “a powerful framework for building better relationships, driving positive change, harnessing innovation, and achieving excellence.” But the test was developed based on completely untested theories and is now widely discredited by the psychology community.

As such, this isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach but rather a ‘we-only-have-one-size’ approach. This means that trying to lead in one way, given any situation, based on the results of the Myers-Briggs test, is always going to be suboptimal. The other, better, way surely is to get really clear on what you want to create; the performance you’re looking for, the results you require, what success means in a specific situation and adapt your style, your language and your actions accordingly.

Maybe a spot of micro-management or close direction is required for one situation, in a crisis perhaps, but actually it’s completely inappropriate for the next situation. If we can understand this, free ourselves from the shackles of our personality type, we can develop faster, be more effective in different situations and think outside of the box.

Same people, different style
Cypher has experienced some growth in the team recently and the one thing I’ve learned is that I need to be a different leader for each one of the individuals. We are up to nine now and on paper, at least, they are all very similar people; they do similar jobs, have similar backgrounds, are at similar levels as we have a relatively flat hierarchy, but despite this they all need different things from me to perform at their best.

I maybe take this for granted, and some people do struggle with this idea. But it’s not just your people that look for a different style, your customers will as well. Cypher’s customer base includes  pub landlords, Estate Agents, builders, professors, to engineers. I can walk on a building site and I sound like a builder within about five minutes, because that’s how I work, but of course other clients might want something different from me- and you.

Choose how you show up
Interestingly, for the purposes of fair research, I added my details into the 16 personality types. If you are interested I’m 74% extrovert, 66% observant, 63% feeling, 57% expecting and 71% assertive. I am not sure what this means or how it helps me in a prospect meeting. Personally, I like to choose how I will show up, ‘who’ I will be, based on the context of the meeting and the traits of the client. If they are a numbers person, I can get into the detail. If they need some reassurance that their idea or company is sound then our business planning and cash flow forecasts will give them the confidence to push forward. Understanding what the audience needs means and adapting to it can create a more optimal outcome for everybody.

Align your leadership style to match your goals
Another way to determine what leadership style to adopt is rooted in the goals we set ourselves and our business. We can’t decide that a business strategy is unachievable because we have a certain personality type. We work with some high-end, precision engineering clients. The quality of their product and service is reflected across their business; the way their finance function is set up, how the receptionist answers the phone, how their admin is done; it all mirrors that business ethos. I also used to work with a scrap metal business. The owner was a scrap merchant by trade and fell into being a business owner and his leadership style didn’t change. I used to collect bags of cash, the paperwork was a bit of a mess but that reflected the business. It was very successful but it demonstrates how the two are so closely linked.

Understanding what your leadership style needs to be in order to achieve your goals is a hundred times more important than understanding where you sit on a personality test.

To be a truly effective leader, work out what you want to create; what your goals or your desired results are, personally or professionally and then adapt your style and your performance as a leader to get there. In doing so, you should access whatever leadership style you want at any time.

Dial up the clarity
We did a podcast on craving clarity not certainty, which was an approach we encourage business owners to take when planning or reviewing their business. But it also applies to a strong leadership approach too. Myers-Briggs, or DISC profiling gives us a level of certainty about who we are and how we should act in any situation. Better to bring a level of clarity to any leadership or management conversation to ensure all parties understand their expected roles and the desired outcomes. Help them make a choice to either stop performing in a way that doesn’t help the business or understand what may happen if they don’t.

Keep your friends close…
In my previous business, I was told that as a leader – a partner in fact- that I wasn’t allowed to be friends with anyone else in the building. This didn’t just include colleagues but partners too. I have a client that had to deal with a friend of his who wasn’t performing in the business and we had to discuss a way to deal with the situation that reflected their friendship but also his status as MD of the business.  My old firm’s leadership style was to have a completely separate life and separate group of friends away from business. It was completely alien to me. As a leader, in what world is it a good thing to not be friends with the people you’re in business with?

Choose your goals, choose your style
To review Goleman’s Six leadership Styles, whether you are an authoritarian, commander style leader, a democratic one, a coach or have an affiliative approach, that is not the issue. The key is whether you can recognise your style and adapt it when faced with a given setting.

Some business leaders are so entrenched in ‘this is my style’ that they don’t see that actually by changing or adapting in certain situations, they’ll create a different- possibly better- output for themselves.

If you have one style and apply it uniformly, across every given situation, there’s absolutely no way you will create the optimal level of performance across your whole team. Business performance is based on delighting clients and when your team performs at its best, that will rub off and everyone will be happy. But different team members respond differently to different styles at different times and by operating with a deal of flexibility you will get a better level of performance from your team.

Find out more

New editions of the Mind Your Business Podcast appear every Friday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or your choice of Pod provider to have it delivered straight to your device.