I speak, of course, of Steve Jobs, the co-founder and former CEO of Apple Computer. Jobs’s figure loomed large over my life a decade ago. My first wife had convinced me to switch to a Mac in 2000, and I embraced everything Mac and Apple with all the zeal of the newly converted. She and I regularly went together to the Apple retail store in Cambridge for Jobs’s keynotes, just to watch him announce new products with his famous showmanship. I have been far less enthused about Apple recently, especially the arbitrary restrictions the company places on iPhone apps – the exact kind of controlling monopolistic behaviour that Apple was once best known for fighting against. I still happily use Macs and iPods, though. And more importantly for today, I learned important lessons from following Apple and Jobs so devotedly in the 2000s – above all about leadership.
I’ve never been much of a leader. I’d much rather let people do their own thing, and stay out of their way. But there are plenty of circumstances when such an attitude is not appropriate. Sometimes, we need to make decisions for other people, and it’s not easy to figure out how to do that well. “Leadership” does not figure prominently in premodern lists of virtues (like Aristotle’s), but I wonder if that’s because of different social circumstances. The idea of leadership as a virtue seems to me to come to the fore in organizations that are supposed (in theory) to be meritocratic, and where the input of subordinates is supposed (again in theory) to be valuable. This is the regular situation of a modern business, but seems to me to have been less common in earlier days. Confucius’s “rectification of names” tells us that “a king kings” (that is, a king should act in the manner proper to a king and “a father fathers”; it doesn’t tell us that “a leader leads,” and I wonder if this wasn’t because most hierarchies were specific enough that the more general idea of leadership was unnecessary.
I’m not enough of a social historian to say any of that with confidence. The point is: however that history may be, today we – at least we in the white-collar middle classes – are frequently thrown into situations where we are expected to lead people who are in other respects considered our equals. And this is a situation that requires decisiveness, requires that those decisions be made even when there are others who actively disagree. And Steve Jobs was the best model of this kind of leadership that I knew.
I remember how back in 2001, not long after I’d first obtained my beautiful Ruby iMac, Apple announced one of its famously secretive press conferences for a mysterious new product. Online Apple forums lit up with underwhelmed disappointment after the conference, saying “you mean it’s just an MP3 player?” But that disappointing MP3 player, of course, turned out to be the iPod – a product that wound up being more successful for Apple than any of the computers it had previously sold, and one which probably eventually wound up in the hands of nearly all the people who had previously posted their disappointment. Similarly, the new computer designs that Apple released under Jobs were often notable for what they lacked. It was unthinkable in 1998 for a computer to be sold without a floppy disk drive – but that’s exactly what the iMac was, and it was the computer that saved Apple. If Jobs had listened too attentively to those around him, he could not have made the bold decisions that he did.
In this respect, leadership is in many respects the inverse of humility, a virtue I’ve spoken of quite frequently on this blog. One must listen to others enough to be aware when one might be wrong – but one must nevertheless still make the decision even though it might be wrong.
Indeed, while Jobs’s decisiveness made him a good leader, it may well be the occasional dose of humility that helped make him a great leader. Just before the iPod, Jobs had gushed about a computer called the G4 Cube, saying in interviews “Isn’t it beautiful?” The G4 Cube, as it turned out, was a very expensive computer that was only as powerful as a laptop but had none of the portability. Few people wanted one; I can’t recall meeting anybody who owned one. It was a flop. But soon enough, Jobs admitted “we goofed.” The humility to admit a mistake is essential to a good leader – one must have the courage to make mistakes, but then be willing to accept their consequences. Jobs did, and he didn’t look back – he continued to make the bizarre but prescient decisions that would build his company from a struggling niche player to the most valuable company on earth.
Now as part of an integrated human life, leadership extends beyond just your own organization; it’s one thing to be a good leader for your company’s bottom line, and another to be a leader who benefits humanity as a whole. On this score, Jobs’s later monopolistic tendencies leave me unable to give him the unequivocal praise I would have liked to give; excluding competitors arbitrarily from the iPhone’s store has probably been great leadership for the bottom line, but it diminishes the broader human good in a way that Jobs’s earlier innovations never did. But then power corrupts, and Jobs is no exception to that. I doubt I could have been as effusive about Jack Layton had he actually become prime minister for a significant length of time. For many years, at least, Jobs gave us a model of what it’s like to be a great leader. That model is worth celebrating – and emulating.