Who is the real Steve Jobs, and what are his lessons for us?

Who is the real Steve Jobs, and what are his lessons for us?

SteveJobs_Marthin SühlAs I begin to write this, I realize full well that one week ago I sketched out a plan and said that I might actually try to stick to it. At the same time, I did call it tentative schedule for the coming weeks, even half-mocking my suggestion that I could actually stay on such a predefined course for very long.

As such, and as luck would have it, something completely outside of the anticipated structure has crossed my path and obliged me to write about it this week. The current issue of Fast Company has an image of Steve Jobs on its cover, with the inscription: “Kind. Patient. Human. The Steve you didn’t know.” This magazine and numerous others have been quite busy of late with the new revelations from an unauthorized biographyBecoming Steve Jobs, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli.

Though Walter Isaacson wrote the officially sanctioned account of the Apple co-founder’s life, with his subject’s blessing and cooperation, those at the company who worked most closely with Jobs have been making various public statements, declaring that the Schlender and Tetzel version paints a more accurate picture of the man they knew. At the risk of oversimplification, the Isaacson biography characterized the protagonist as “charismatic and inspiring, yet also…an asshole at times.” Becoming Steve Jobs emphasizes more the kind and human side that his closest collaborators comment about.

The recent statements of CEO Tim Cook and other key employees—that Schlender and Tetzel came closer than Isaacson to an accurate portrayal of their former boss’s style and character—have led to a rather lively discussion about which of the two tomes best captures his true essence.

But, this debate is not my subject for today. Rather, the publication of Schlender and Tetzeli’s work has reminded me of a disturbing tendency in the leadership literature today.

The two biographies of Steve Jobs have spawned a multitude of articles that attempt to find—and present in list form—lessons from his life and leadership that we can all benefit from. Among the many in this genre:

“Five Surprising Insights About Steve Jobs’ Management Style” (Fast Company)

“Six Leadership Lessons from Steve Jobs” (Mashable)

“Eight Lessons You Can Learn From Watching Young Steve Jobs Run a Meeting”(Time)

Six Management Lessons (The Globe and Mail)

“14 Real Leadership Lessons” (Harvard Business Review)

“Ten Leadership Tips from Steve Jobs” (Forbes)

While I find much of this reading interesting and even at times insightful, I am nonetheless troubled by our fascination with what extraordinarily successful people can “teach” us, and with our desire to mimic their styles and approaches. While it is undeniable that Steve’s leadership worked for him and for Apple, I see little reason to believe it should work for the rest of us.

Perhaps Bill Gates states it best. The former Microsoft CEO is said to have quipped to the authors of Becoming Steve Jobs that the man in question was such a unique case that an appropriate book title would be: Dont Try This at Home.

As I see it, the great danger of these “list of lessons” articles is that they may give us promises of quick solutions. The premise is that if we can inject some of Steve into what we do, it will make us more effective as managers. This is a mindset that I call working on our leadership skills from the outside in.

While I will be among the first to say that we can learn and benefit from the stories of others, developing ourselves as leaders is mostly about working from the inside out. It is about looking honestly within, reflecting deeply about who we are and what truly matters to us, and then learning to express these things to others.

Steve Jobs’ management style was very much in keeping with who he was, and perhaps this authenticity is the most profound lesson that we can glean from his remarkable career. One thing is clear from both of the recent biographies: this man had an extraordinary way of reflecting on the lessons of his own life, and of expressing these lessons to others. Rather than try to imitate Steve’s management style, we should strive to emulate his ability to process his life experience and to keep learning about himself. We should use our own life experience just as he did, remaining at all times reflective about what truly matters to us, and authentic to who we are.

Reading about people like Steve Jobs can certainly be fascinating and even instructive. But, those of us who are not Steve should not lose sight of a basic truth: effective leadership is more about self-knowledge than about Steve-knowledge.

Image: Flickr-user Marthin Sühl

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