When Steve Jobs died in 2011 at age 56, he was a far better leader and person than he was 30 years before. That shouldn’t surprise you.
It’s natural for us to change and develop as we move through life. That’s what we expect of ourselves, our friends, and the people we work with. That’s what we expect of our leaders, too.
Somehow, though, most of the writing, and many of the beliefs about Jobs, don’t reflect that. With Jobs, we get the cartoon version. We get the amazing genius and the abusive jerk. For whatever reason, Jobs is portrayed as being the same from the time he came on the scene as a founder of Apple to the end of his days.
The Historical Context
Steve Jobs had a scanty work history when he co-founded Apple at 21. In two years, he was a millionaire. By the time he was 25, his net worth was over $250 million. That’s the kind of success that would tempt anyone to believe it was all about them.
At 30, Jobs was pushed hard out of Apple. He soon founded another company, NeXT Computer. This is where things start to get interesting.
NeXT the company was never really a success. Apple purchased it when the company brought Jobs back in 1997. But during this period, Jobs experimented with different corporate organizations. He conceived of a community instead of a company. He wanted to call the people who worked at NeXT “members” rather than “employees.”
He had plenty of time to reflect on what had gone wrong at Apple and what he had done wrong. He could also reflect on the things he tried at NeXT. Some of them worked. Some didn’t. When he was called back from the wilderness to save Apple, Jobs was a different kind of leader.
One reason was that he had become involved with Pixar. You can find the details of that in Ed Catmull’s book, Creativity, Inc. My theory is that Ed Catmull provided Steve Jobs with a better mental model of what leadership could be.
Insanely Great Products and More
The Steve Jobs of popular myth is the developer of insanely great products. He was that. There’s no one else that I can think of, short of Thomas Edison, who had so much to do with so many world-changing products. But Steve Jobs after the return was more than a product developer.
One of his first official acts after returning to Apple was to trim back the Macintosh product line. Pre-wilderness Jobs would not have done that. It looks to me like Jobs was applying the same kind of design thinking to Apple the company as he applied to Apple products.
The cartoon version of Jobs is a man who would never change his mind. But the post-wilderness Jobs did that often. A good example is the App Store. He started out with the same idea he had in his first time at Apple. Only Apple should create software for Apple products. But he changed his mind.
Jobs continued to apply lessons that he’d learned from his mistakes in his first time at Apple. Ed Catmull tells the story of discussions with Steve at the time of the Disney merger. Jobs referred to his experience at Apple with the design of the Macintosh and the Lisa. He said he’d handled it badly. He learned lessons from that experience that would make the Pixar/Disney merger more effective.
Ed Catmull was someone who knew Steve Jobs from his first time at Apple until his death. Here’s his assessment: “Steve changed profoundly in the years that I knew him.”
I don’t think that’s amazing at all. I can’t imagine a person as intelligent and committed to excellence as Steve Jobs not changing. I’m not claiming he wasn’t difficult and arrogant, just that he was a better leader and a better person at 56 than he was at 26.
What are the lessons you can learn from his experience, from his life?
Change Is Inevitable, Growth Is Not
No matter who you are, you change as you get older. Things happen to you that affect the way you think and the way you do things. With age, you get perspective that you didn’t have before. But that’s just change, it’s not necessarily growth.
Growth takes work. When Steve Jobs was pushed out of Apple in 1985, he could have done many things. He had enough money to do almost anything he wanted, or to do nothing at all. He could have become an investor, or a consultant, or an art collector. Instead, he founded NeXT and upped his involvement with Pixar. He reflected on what had gone wrong and what he would do differently next time. He experimented with both technology and corporate organization.
Pain Is Part of The Package
Getting pushed out of Apple was no treat. But that experience and the time in the wilderness helped Jobs become a different person and leader. I’m sure he would have changed and grown anyway. I’m also sure that the wilderness experience, after being hailed as a genius while still in his 20s, could have been very different.
If You’re A Leader
If you’re a leader, part of your legacy is the team or organization you leave behind. For the last decade of his life, that’s what Steve Jobs was working on. He wanted to leave a company that was as great as the products it produced.
We all change, but we don’t all grow. Put in the work to grow and develop. Learn from what you’ve done so you do better next time. Make your team, team members, and the world be better because of you.