The price of greatness: Three takeaways from the biography of Steve Jobs

Thoughts on the scarcity of great leaders.

Steve JobsAs the first Christmas approaches without Apple founder Steve Jobs, it’s worth pausing for a moment to appreciate what he has left behind.

In addition to an astoundingly healthy business with $80 billion in the bank, recent analysis by Andy Zaky of Bullish Cross suggests that in the current holiday quarter, Apple will record its largest earnings blowout ever.

This is on top of unparalleled customer loyalty and brand recognition, not to mention a potent halo effect generated by Apple’s iPhone, iPad and Mac products.

Yet, according to analyst Zaky, Apple remains the most undervalued large cap stock in America. It’s almost as if Apple is saving “one more thing” for the holidays; this one, a stocking-stuffer for investors.

I bring this last point up because the notion of Apple still being undervalued (and under-appreciated), despite the accomplishments, accolades and attention, suggests something about the human condition; namely, that when faced with an exceedingly bright and brilliant light, our minds naturally filter it down a bit.

But true greatness, the kind realized by Jobs in his life, and by Edison, Disney and Ford before him, is best appreciated without filters, for it is something that is experienced perhaps only once in a generation.

With that in mind, I want to share three takeaways from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs that spotlight both the greatness of the man and the price that greatness demands.

“The flu game”

In the annals of professional sports, there is perhaps no individual performance more emblematic of greatness in action, than “the flu game” in the 1997 NBA Finals, where a flu-ridden Michael Jordan overcame a stomach virus that had rendered him weak and dehydrated to score 38 points and lead his Chicago Bulls to a 90-88 victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 5. They won the series in six games.

That one man could overcome, no ignore, failing health to will his team to victory is both a defining example of the greatness of Michael Jordan as a basketball player, and no different than how Jordan approached every game that he played.

I thought about this a lot in reading Jobs’ bio, inasmuch as one of the key takeaways (for me) from the book was how Apple’s rise from the ashes was largely accomplished with its leader fighting not a flu, but cancer, and not for one game, but for eight years.

We all know about Jobs’ battles with cancer, his forced leaves of absence, and the fact that he was never quite physically restored to the cherub-like state that he embodied when he first returned to Apple in 1997.

But the book lays clear, painfully so, something that all of us grokked and groped from the shadows but could never truly “know” because it wasn’t public: from the moment he got sick in 2003 to when he died in October of this year, Jobs was never fully healthy again


Quite the opposite, in fact. He was literally fighting a continuous battle with his body, and a metastasizing cancer, yet still led his team to a series of triumphs that have no equal in the annals of business.

What Steve Jobs accomplished after cancer

  1. iTunes Store ramp
  2. iPhone
  3. iOS + App Store
  4. iPad

During this period, Apple stock surged more than 3,000%, and for Jobs personally, it was only his second greatest financial achievement; he would realize far greater personal wealth leading Pixar’s evolution from a failing tech provider for the film business into Disney 2.0.

Apple's stock performance

Just as Jordan’s flu game is simultaneously emblematic and par for the course of his greatness, so too was Jobs’ leadership of Apple during his period of sickness.

The man known for reality distortion and an unwavering, uncompromising pursuit of the insanely great, ignored his own personal suffering, paying the ultimate price to achieve greatness. More so than any nugget from the Steve Jobs bio is this coarsely ground truth, something that should serve as a reminder the next time we wonder why there are so few great leaders, and even fewer great companies.

Yeah, but he was a jerk

Those who seek to dismiss or marginalize the accomplishments of Jobs tend to focus on one of three things.

Either they diminish his accomplishments as a modern-day Edison since Jobs wasn’t an engineer, or they give props to Jobs’ marketing savvy as a backhanded-way of diminishing the realness of what he built.

Or, they point out that he was a narcissistic jerk who took credit for the accomplishments of others, was controlling, belligerent, and probably not the prototypical role model of the family man (home for dinner, mowing the lawn on the weekends).

I’d like to focus on this last point, as it is simply irrelevant to the field of play that Jobs made his mark within.

Few of us know or care if Michael Jordan is a nice guy, whether Walt Disney remembered the names of his workers’ kids or if Thomas Edison pet his dog. Case in point, Henry Ford held anti-Semitic views, but that doesn’t mute the impact that Ford had on the field of play that is the automotive industry.

In Jobs’ case, we have already established how fully the man led by example; how unparalleled the financial results his company generates are; and the deep, emotional bond that Apple products engender with users. But, also know that Jobs built a corporate culture defined by longevity, loyalty, depth, purpose and intellectual honesty — but above all, peak performance.

In other words, in the field of play that is creating enduring companies that build products that “make a dent in the universe” (a Jobs axiom), whether the leader is warm, fuzzy and personally likable is mostly orthogonal to the outcomes that he manifests.

Sweating the details

So, we’ve established that Jobs led by example, making the ultimate sacrifice so that his vision, his purpose in life, could be realized.

And we’ve noted that whatever personal peculiarities adorned the man, they didn’t tarnish his accomplishments one iota.

In closing, I’d note how Jobs’ manifestation of these attributes translated into the type of leader who plugged himself into an entire category of granular decisions that on the one hand, most CEOs would delegate “on principal,” but on the other, it’s darn near impossible to imagine an un-Jobsian leader being able to yield the wealth of transformational products that Apple has created.

One such example explored in the book are the specific materials and production processes that Apple uses in building its products. Such is the story of Gorilla Glass, the exceptionally lightweight, damage-resistant glass that came to anchor the screen of the iPhone.

How Gorilla Glass came to be is classic Jobs.

Internally, the iPhone team was driven by a realization that the centerpiece of a touch-driven phone was the display, not a composite of screen, casing and keyboard.

Armed with this clarity, Jobs drove the Apple team to re-think the form of the device around its display centricity. But, of course, this begged the question of the integrity and durability of the display material being used.

While conventional wisdom initially drove the company toward plastic screens, as the iPod had used, Jobs focused on the elegance and substantive nature of glass.

Having gotten wind from an old friend that Corning Glass was doing some amazing things with chemically-fortified glass, in typical Jobs fashion, he tracked down Corning’s CEO, who told him about a chemical process that had actually originated in the 1960s but had never found an appropriate commercial application.

Convinced that he had found the right answer, Jobs challenged Corning’s CEO to commit to both the capacity and timeline needed to achieve the scale Apple required to meet the iPhone launch deadline.

It was a game-changing solution for an unproven new device from an approach that had never been produced commercially prior to that point. And it worked!

There are similar stories in the book about the advent of multitouch, Apple’s embrace of intricate metal fabrication processes, mass-purchasing of pinpoint lasers and the internal prototyping culture that instructed what became the Apple Stores.

Beyond showcasing the many incredible qualities of Jobs, all of this serves to underscore that having a simple product line — in terms of having very few products — is very different than having a simple product strategy. With scarcity comes focus, and with focus comes precision.

A final thought

There are many of us who consider ourselves to be entrepreneurs, inventors, and startup guys and gals, but I think this quote from Jobs captures the essence that there are no shortcuts to greatness. Greatness is dedication. It’s a demand, and it’s a detail. Or, as Jobs said:

I hate it when people call themselves entrepreneurs when what they’re really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public so they can cash in and move on. They’re unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business.

Amen. Somewhere in the universe, there is a hole where the light of Steve Jobs still shines through.

Photo of Steve Jobs from Apple Press Info.


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  • kathleen

    Steve was a real guy , raised by working class people who built his life from scratch .
    He was not perfect but neither are any of the harpies that rant on him .
    They are not perfect either but must try to degrade him to bring him down to their level of mediocrity .
    And BTW , Edison hated Tesla & tried to prove the dangers of AC electricity by electrocuting horses in public .

    If 1/2 the people were a dedicated as Steve Jobs , we would have a tiny fraction of the problems we have on this planet today .

    Miss you greatly Steve ,
    Thanks and Rest in Peace

  • twodogs

    Idiotic, slathering fan-article. I own several apple devices and have no ’emotional bond’ – and have grown weary of of this interpretation: that Jobs’s subtle get everyone to identify & drink the kool aid marketing strategy = some kind of advancement in humanity. Let us note: the decade long progression from mac towards ipad is a direct line away from creation and towards consumption – of – you guessed it – products from apple’s walled garden. Greatness? Hmmmm.

  • Few of us know or care if Michael Jordan is a nice guy, whether Walt Disney remembered the names of his workers’ kids or if Thomas Edison pet his dog. Case in point, Henry Ford held anti-Semitic views, but that doesn’t mute the impact that Ford had on the field of play that is the automotive industry.

    In other words, values don’t matter, only contribution to society does. Two quick questions about that:

    1) Do we want to live in a world where do values not matter? Is this the kind of vision of society we want to perpetrate?

    2) Can one even separate values from contribution to society?

  • David Chu

    @Simon – I think it’s very short sighted to imply that these men had no values. I would argue that in order to build a great company, you have to have very strong values, but being polite is not a necessary value. In fact, I think being polite and trying to please everyone prohibits you from making a big impact because it keeps you from making really great products. A product, as in life, is full of tradeoffs. You can’t be all things to everyone.

  • @kathleen, it’s human nature to want to diminish that which is rare, and to take offense to the earnest adulation that “must be trickery” or the by-product of dumb people. I neither see a saint nor a need to take down and find fault, for fault’s sake.

    @twodogs, what exactly is slathering? who looks better to you, or do you just believe that no one is worthy of adulation? also, just because you feel no emotional connection doesn’t equate to blindness that so many others do. are you saying this interpretation is invalid? creation vs. consumption, open v. closed; there is truth in what you say, but your tilt suggests a false dichotomy (i.e., EITHER/OR).

    @simon, if you were assembling a professional basketball team, and you were putting your family’s life savings in it, would you build a team with players most capable or winning or filter out those who don’t pass a character test first? my point is not that values don’t matter, but that the field of play defines WHAT values matter most. my ethos on values in today’s business world is that they do indeed matter, but consumers have proven repeatedly that they will cut their nose off to spite their face if the product doesn’t serve their selfish needs first. until we find a way to imbue products with a “true cost” so as to compare the $14.99 walmart pants to the $199 hand-tailored ones, it’s a murky paradox, at best.

  • Steve Jobs changed the entire world with his visionary outset and revamping of wireless media and communications. He’ll be a name which rings out through history for evolving the way we live, share and communicate. I was compelled to create a portrait of him, now In Memoriam on my artist’s blog at

  • @Mark Your analogy suggests that you think that the more money and risk is involved, the more raw performance takes priority over character. In other words, money does trump values, every time. Again, that may be (and I’m not convinced it is) the reality of the marketplace but don’t try convincing the world that it’s noble and inspiring.

    And with regard to your analogy, we’re not talking about players, we’re talking about leaders. I’d choose the most capable players but by God I’d make sure the coach loved their men and was loved by them.

  • I like his quote “They’re unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business” which is very true.

    There is no shortcut on everything especially success. Anyone who’s on the peak of their career are passed through many difficulties before they achieve their success.

  • Beth

    My young son has requested the Steve Jobs biography for Christmas the pursuit of which has led me to this article. It is very well written and interesting. Thank you.

  • Gwen Jenkins

    @David Chu – “Polite” is not “trying to please everyone.” One can be ruthlessly truthful without crossing the bounds of civility or stooping to verbal/emotional abuse.

  • Steve Jobs is really an icon. Thanks for sharing a bit more about him. The future generation should look up on him.

  • Tracy

    Great article. Thank you.

    I am a SJ fan and have three Apple products, an iPhone, an iPod Touch, and a MacBook Pro. I love all of these products because they are beautifully made and completely functional. When I turn my MacBook on or off, it turns on or off. When I turn on my PC at work it s-l-o-w-l-y turns on and then you have to click on a billion pop-up items just to get to the home screen, nearly the same process for turning it off. I love that my Apple products are made with real glass and aluminum. I appreciate every single detail that went into making these and that is why I am a fan.

  • Eric

    @MarkSigal: In your response to @simon you state that the field of play determines what values matter most. Does that apply to becoming best dictator or best serial killer? Outlandish examples, to be sure, but the point is that values should determine the playing field. Sure, if I’m starting a basketball team I want five egomaniacal sociopaths who see no value greater than winning to play on it. That being said, one wonders what the value of winning a basketball game truly is? All the praise for Steve Jobs is tempered by the realization that he was a rude, manipulative jerk who took credit for the work of others. Maybe common human decency should take a higher value than creating fun pocket toys – because that’s really all Jobs accomplished with his life. He made toys. I’m fond of those toys and I own most of them, but they are still just toys. The suggestion that his greatness as a toymaker overshadows his failings as a human being is a choice of values. The author prioritizes successful toy making over decency. That’s fine, but let’s call that what it is.

    The enduring image of Jobs for me is the picture of his car parked in the handicapped space at Apple (something he apparently did regularly). He’s the CEO and messiah figure of the company. He can get an executive parking spot built anywhere on that campus (including building a ramp to his office if he chooses). Instead he chooses to park in the handicapped space because it sends a message to everyone that he is giving the middle finger to basic human decency and they can all kiss his ass. That is the man you so admire. That is who and what he was. A deeply flawed toymaker.

  • I’m 2/3rds through the book now. I too admire Jobs but and also deeply troubled by the book because of how much of an EXTREME jerk that he was!!! To everyone, not just competitors, but to his closest friends and family.

    To dismiss this as irrelevant to his ‘field of play’ is to dismiss Hitler’s less than admirable traits in his field of play. Come on! As Jack Welch and any number of great executives over the eons has proven, you don’t need to be a complete @ss to be a great leader!

    Despite my great admiration for Jobs, his achievements will forever be tarnished in my mind because he was the consummate jerk!

  • @Simon, there are truisms of life that don’t make us warm and fuzzy but are nonetheless, true. My point is that what ultimately matters in a given industry, domain, etc. is what generates the desired outcomes of that domain. In this regard, I would certainly hold up Steve Jobs accomplishments as standard-setting. As parent and spouse, probably less so, but I have other roles models for those domains.

    @Eric, we can always come up with extreme cases to support arguments, and every case has threshold conditions. Would we love Michael Jordan if he was an axe-murderer? Of course not. Also, to dismiss Jobs as a toymaker is akin to saying everything is ‘just stuff,’ and nothing matters when put along side family, happiness, etc. But again, that’s all or none. Lots of people enjoy basketball, even if it doesn’t matter. Lots of people get joy, utility, productivity, knowledge and communication out of Apple products.

    Don’t get me wrong, though. If Jobs persona ruins the brand integrity for YOU, that’s totally valid. Consumers have a choice, and I wish there were 10 companies as good as Apple. Sadly, there aren’t.

    @Dale, to your point, Welch is a serial philanderer, who happened to be a great leader. Do you hate him now that you know he has was an unfaithful spouse, or do you respect his great accomplishments, and the fact that he is generally perceived as a thoughtful warm human being, who happens to have some flaws in his personal life?

    Moral of the story: if we could choose the perfect human to create the perfect business to create the perfect products that were fairly priced, and never broke down, maybe we would. But, alas, we can’t, and as such, everything is relative.

  • miles

    “Few of us know or care if Michael Jordan is a nice guy, whether Walt Disney remembered the names of his workers’ kids or if Thomas Edison pet his dog. Case in point, Henry Ford held anti-Semitic views, but that doesn’t mute the impact that Ford had on the field of play that is the automotive industry.”

    More’s the sorrow that few remember. For the record Disney, Edison and Ford were ALL antisemites, and each found other ways to be unpleasant jerks too.

    The ability to dissociate is the hallmark of psychopathy, and the ability to be a sycophant to psychopaths… well, I’m not sure there is a name quite low enough for that, but you’ve nicely illustrated the thought patterns that are involved.

    No, people don’t care about what a jerk Edison was, what a hater Ford was, or what a jerk Jobs was…. but they should. Too bad folks like you are committed to justifying these moral cretins.

    Yeah, love my iphone, drive an internal combustion engine car, and do lots of things I’m not proud of… but you won’t here me justifying that stuff or excusing what a lousy person Steve Jobs was.

    The pretty shiny object in my pocket is tainted with the smell of Steve Jobs moral obtuseness, with the living conditions of the people who manufacture it in China, and much more…. and you don’t see it for what it is, if you don’t see that on it every time you use it.

  • @Mark – Thanks for the post. Your comment about filtering brilliance got me in particular.

    We like to categorise and create boxes when we analyse people and the world around us.

    No matter how brilliant someone is we can always find a box to put that brilliance in (“toymaker”,”businessman” etc.)

    Once we have the brilliance safely in a box we can pull out other boxes (“parent”,”humanitarian” etc. etc.)

    Where we fall done badly is that we argue like mad over the sizes of these boxes. No matter how brilliant you think he was, I can fit all that brilliance into one box, then I can compare it with the others.

    Another example of this might be in debates over climate change, evolution (and even Holocaust denial, though thankfully that’s mostly gone away) where no matter how much brilliant scientific research is done, it can be denied by boxing it up as ‘a scientific view’ and comparing it with a (possibly empty) box of ‘another scientific view’. Now there are two boxes, we argue ‘my box is better than yours’.

    I’m seriously off-topic now, so I’ll leave you with a question:

    If you were designing “Tech Icon” Top Trumps, what would the categories be, and who’d be in your deck?



  • @Peter, interesting question. Off the top of my head, the following come to mind in the CEO category (there are obviously brilliant tech visionaries that could be a separate list)

    The Titans
    Steve Jobs
    Bill Gates
    Andy Grove
    Jeff Bezos
    Larry Ellison
    Larry Page/Sergey Brin
    John Chambers

    Titan Categories:
    Industries Conquered
    Killer Products
    Magical Moments
    Memorable Slogans
    Personality Quirks
    Strategic Knockout Punch
    Years of Domination
    Relative Stock Performance
    Accrued Profits
    Accrued Cash

    Thanks for the inspired question. :-)

  • Marty

    @alison and @Peter, I am so glad that you guys used the word icon to describe Steve Jobs. Steve is absolutely an icon. Steve is an icon and a symbol and not much more, he analogous to the bitten apple itself. Steve is undoubtedly genius, which was mostly if not wholly applied in his young adulthood.

    I would ask everyone on this post to think of character traits that they admire most in the one person that they would call their “hero”. I will ruin the experiment now by telling you that not one of these qualities is anything superhuman and I am sure that many of you will find that you are VERY similar to your hero.

    Getting back on track, Steve was a genius and a go-getter in his youth and in helping build his company from scratch, but after the release of the original Macs and especially the first iPod he really had no choice but continue in his ways. His zealous pursuit of perfection and his “dream” was not some idealistic view of a better future it was self-preservation for posterity. He is the mother who raises 10 kids and then raises 7 of her grandchildren and is burnt out and stressed and it is killing her (literally, as in Steve’s case). Does she now say to the 8th grandchild that she is tired of caring for the loved ones that look up to her? “I’m sorry little Jimmy but you can either share needles with your mommy or join Daddy in his prison cell in Attica.” Better yet maybe it would be fine to watch the child taken into the foster system. Anyway, my point is that Steve Jobs was/is a genius but nowhere near greatness (NOT EVEN CLOSE). What drove him toward the end was to not leave consumers with the terrible alternatives that they had to his companies products, that isn’t a Martin Luther King Jr-esque dream it’s basic, simple, down-to-earth loyalty and fear of obsurity. Steve got what he wanted and I’m sure someone will erect a statue of him somewhere.

    “doesn’t mute the impact that Ford had on the field of play that is the automotive industry”
    -That is one of the most terrible things I have ever heard anyone say. Hitler’s scientist’s made innumerable contributions to the advances of health sciences and technology many of which, if they had not been made, wouldn’t have allowed for Steve Jobs and other to “change the world” as many of you so emotionally and ambiguously like to put it.

    Am I going to praise Hitler for those advances….? FU@K NO!!!!!!!!!!
    Of course it “mutes” the contribution you silly @ss. Henry Ford isn’t who we are taking about, it is his company, just as Steve Jobs is not who we should be talking about it should be the company. It is easy enough to mention to school children the fact that the Nazis contributed to the advancement of technology and engineering without making them sing songs about how great Hitler was.

    I’m sorry I still can’t believe what I just read. I really hope the author of this article is not a Nazi himself. Remember everyone the in America corporations are people too, so be nice to Apple when praising Steve!

  • I’ve just borrowed the book from my neighbor and started reading it today.

    I didn’t know until reading Isaacson’s introduction that Jobs requested him to write this biography. A self-solicited biography is certainly one of the more vain things an individual can do.

    Some may argue that Jobs felt he needed to find a biographer because he was ill and dying and wanted to see the project up and running, but that’s merely excuse-making.

    Any qualified biographer would have been happy to take on this project after his passing, and many of them would have done a great job at it, without the odor of a “vanity project” attached to the work.

  • Steve jobs is present in every product of APPLE.
    he brought a new style to the computers world.