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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