Vision Unplugged — How Steve Jobs Transformed Leadership

I worked with Steve Wozniak back in the early ’80s to help produce a rock concert in San Bernardino, CA. He was a rumpled, disheveled, distracted genius who had lost sight of what to do with himself and his brainiac ideas after his soul brother Steve Jobs tossed him out of the proverbial garage a few years earlier. I recall him as much today as everyone is heaping accolades on the Genius of Jobs because it is a clear picture of how vision can seduce you down a path of ignominy, or propel you to greatness.

Woz, as he was called, was the mechanic of the duo, almost insanely focused on what he could create with the scrabble of parts on the bench. His was a mad genius, but his genius never took him anywhere. His brilliance was his enemy; he was never going to be able to get people to follow him. Steve Jobs, at least in his second incarnation as CEO of Apple, had an innate sense of how technology could allow people to live a life that he knew was inside of them, and he made that vision a personal mission.

Steve Jobs was, famously and destructively at times, a perfectionist — but he was far from perfect. He deserved to get fired when he did, and the company nearly sank under the waves of its own misguided journeys at least twice under his hand.

But as an executive coach, what I am more struck by is not just the advancements in the zen-like procession of Apple products (and the resultant transformation of our lives), but the evolution and refinement of Steve Jobs himself as a CEO.

Given the manic turbulence of his career and performance, many business leaders for some time viewed the ascendency of Jobs as a bit of a quirk, a passing of comets of technology and a market niche of rebels. Yet, when you look at his career and vision — especially over the last decade — there are some leadership qualities that were very much the heart of this genius from Cupertino that are more relevant than ever to leadership today:

1. He was fiercely patient about realizing the possible. He was never hidebound by market research. He was a focus group of one. He had unbridled confidence that the market would come to a product (really a concept or idea) that was just plain cool. No, not everyone at first, but he understood that a small band of zealots would lead to a larger group of early adopters which would lead to … well, just look at how many people are living “unplugged” today with smartphones and tablets as a necessary platform of daily business and life. Patience paid off. At a time when we are slaves to quarterly earnings, it is time to step back and realize that Apple stock was issued in the early 80s at $22/share. It is now nearly $400/share.

2. He was fiercely resilient. Steve Jobs crashed as often as he succeeded, but he never quit on the vision, never abandoned the essence of his brand — independence and ingenuity. He was determined to be different. He led Apple to a dominance as the world’s most valuable enterprise this year, but the path was never direct; it was oblique, continually bouncing off obstacles and absorbing opportunities. He once told a graduating class at Stanford to forget about trying to connect the dots in advance; you can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. Better to trust your guts, even your sense of destiny, your ability to change the world around you. That is what draws the market to you, not a spreadsheet. He had a purpose; people realized that and joined him.

3. He was fiercely engaged. In his early years, he was engaged in the wrong ways — micro-managing, intruding on the work of others who were equal geniuses. Over time, he mellowed, realizing his energy was best put to inspiring and creating an almost magical fascination with how life could be lived with the products they were producing. He was a visionary who stood well past the noise of the market to speak into a world that did not yet exist.

4. He realized his mortality. Strangely, I think Steve Jobs has been more effective after his brush with death a few years ago. He has come to realize that the tyranny of the urgent is a false calling for one’s life. Sometimes, there is not always a tomorrow. He has seen his dream come to life, and he has enjoyed the ride.

So have we.


About paulheagen

I am an executive coach, advisor and confidant who helps leaders better understand, refresh or redirect their purpose in their business and personal lives. Over my 35-year career as a corporate executive, communications consultant and trusted advisor, I have guided executives through “defining moments” – those unique times when the decisions they make, the words they speak, and the qualities they exhibit can influence not only the destiny of their organization but also their own lives and careers. When it comes to my clients and my life work, I am ferociously passionate and restlessly inquisitive about uncovering the unique dreams, vision and purpose that lead to exceptional leadership.
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