The Wisdom�and Genius�of Steve Jobs

by Mike Clayton  - May 18, 2012

By any measure � not least, by popular acclaim � Steve Jobs was a remarkable man.
He was clearly very smart, and his achievements were prodigious.

In summary, he:

  • Co-founded Apple Computers Inc (with Steve Wozniak)
  • Built computer company NeXT
  • Created Pixar (home of Buzz Lightyear and Woody, Sully and Mike, Nemo and Wall-E)
  • � and sold it to become the single largest shareholder in The Walt Disney Company
  • Was recalled to Apple and transformed it into the phenomenon� it became, as home of the iPod, iTunes, iPhone and iPad

But was Steve Jobs Wise?

I think we can see wisdom in many of Jobs� greatest strengths.� And we can also see, in his weaknesses, further indicators of what wisdom is.

Perhaps most interesting, in the gaps, we might also catch glimpses of the nature of genius.

The importance of Breadth, as well as depth

Jobs always seemed pretty clear: the �experts� know nothing.� Not the analysts, the bankers, the consultants, and certainly not the commentators.� Jobs preferred to trust his own instincts, born of highly eclectic interests and a fanatical passion for perfection.� He respected depth of knowledge, but was always keen to combine his own sensibilities and this was never more so than with design.� Jobs was fascinated by a range f sources, from traditional font design to minimalist architecture to Zen Buddhism.

The importance of Work you Love

Jobs was passionate about his work, seeing in it a true sense of purpose.� And the more his work stretched his capabilities, the more astonishing were his insights.


The importance of Vision

Jobs did not need market research to tell him what the future would look like: he saw it for himself.� When asked how if he was sorry that Walt Disney did not live to see the opening of Disney World, his brother Roy answered: �but he did see it.�� It seems more than coincidence that Jobs, another true visionary, became the largest individual shareholder in the company Disney created.� Few people have been responsible for as much revolutionary change as Jobs.� �Without vision, the people will perish� � Jobs had the capacity to enchant and to see what was not yet reality.

On the other hand, he could often make demands that, whilst visionary, exceeded the boundaries of technical reality, placing people under great stress.� Of course, famously, this did mean that some of the best people were able to stretch those very boundaries as a result.

The importance of Leadership

Jobs provided visionary leadership, but was not averse to leading by doing: publicly demonstrating products and showing an absolute commitment to his creations, like a proud father.� He could have left this to the marketing department, as most CEOs do, but he didn�t: he got out in front of the market and said �I love this product�.� That�s integrity.

On the other hand, Jobs could also be a tyrannical leader making unreasonable demands on all of his people, to shake out all but the best.

The importance of Judgement

Jobs demonstrated good judgement in many ways.

  • He understood what was important and what was not, culling Apple�s product range massively on his return to the company, and rejecting cost-based pricing, in favour of value-based prices, which cost many of us dear, but have made Apple one of the richest companies on the planet
  • He was capable of seeing his mistakes and publicly changing his mind, as he did to great effect, when he accepted the creation of the App store
  • He could take great risks, but always calculated the consequences
  • He had a fanatical desire to choose only the very best people to work with � and was good at spotting them (and luring them)

On the other hand, his ability to disregard anyone who did not fit his template of an �A Player� meant Jobs almost certainly lost out on access to a huge pool of talent and insight that was available to him.� A balanced, diverse team needs such a breadth of capabilities that sometimes, those at �B level� (or just appearing to be) can be of huge value.

The importance of Recognition

One of Jobs� weaknesses was the imbalance in the way he recognised the performances of his A players and almost disregarded anyone else, treating many of his most valuable people with shades of contempt.� That was not wise.

The importance of Simplicity

Jobs� drive towards simplicity in design and presentation led to revolutionary levels of ease of use.� Who�d have thought that an $800 dollar computer with software (the early iPhones) could have a manual with little over 100 words of text and a few pictures and still be easy to configure and use for the average consumer.� And in his legendary product launch presentations, that simplicity created a powerful impact that gave them tremendous authority.

The importance of Action

In the Unifying Picture of Wisdom in the final chapter of Smart to Wise, Action is needed to complete the loop from Authority to Perception to Judgement to Conduct.

Figure 20 from Smart to Wise: A Unifying Picture of Wisdom

If all that Jobs had done were to create a world-class innovation company, he�d be soon forgotten: just the founder of a new division in a corporate conglomerate.� But Apple can deliver.� The relentless focus on the supply lines make Apple a company that can supply the phenomenal demand it creates.� And, whilst there is much to debate politically and ethically in some of the choices the company has made in how it fulfils the stages in its logistics chain, it is beyond doubt that the efficacy of that chain is world class.

The importance of Insight

Jobs� personality was, like yours and mine, blighted with flaws.� They become far more obvious due to the scale of what he sought to achieve and, indeed, succeeded at.� But what is more important was his evolution in understanding of his own personality traits, which meant that, in later life, he started owning up to these shortcomings.

The importance of Balance

Jobs was a perfectionist who took his design and functionality ethics to the very limits of what was possible.� This fanaticism led him to pay attention to every detail.� But his balance was disrupted when the perfectionism took over from the good sense of important business concerns like people management and cost efficiency.

The nature of Genius

Is genius the same as wisdom?� I think not.

But what strikes me about Jobs is his obsessive perfectionism and attention to the detail of his products.� Maybe if balance is one of the keys to wisdom, a relentless focus to the extent of absolute perfectionism is one of the keys to genius.

Jobs was flawed, yes, but�he also showed much wisdom and perhaps even a seam of genius.

The Apprentice 2012, Episode 10: Who are you?

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