BUSINESS PEOPLE AND consumers alike look up to Steve Jobs as perhaps the greatest CEO of his generation. He undoubtedly made a profound impact on this world.
But business executives shouldn’t read his biography. You can’t be like him, and you shouldn’t be like him. And when you read it, you won’t be able to resist trying.
You can’t be like him because he was a genius.
Many of the business lessons in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs can’t be applied anywhere else. Jobs had a management style unique to himself, and it was deeply connected to his company and industry at the time. What he did at Apple only worked because of his own inexplicable, and extraordinary, abilities.
Any executive is capable of doing the things that folks claim are from the “Steve Jobs School of Management,” but these aren’t the things that defined his success. For instance, he was decisive, intensely detail-focused and valued design above all. But what counts is that he made the right decisions, focused on the right details and helped design things that were truly beautiful.
It’s that unidentifiable bit that gets us. How did he get all those things so right? Well, there’s one word that always appears in discussions about Jobs’ abilities: “uncanny.” His uncanny ability to know exactly what people wanted, even before they wanted it. His uncanny ability to think outside the box. His uncanny ability to seduce people with his ideas. His uncanny ability to foresee innovation. The things he did made us uncomfortable, and we could never pin down exactly what he was doing.
That set of abilities, his most mysterious features, are what made him great at business. He was an aberration (or outlier, in Malcolm Gladwell-speak). And that, you can’t copy. All the other big business names that we put in the same category as Jobs were completely different from him, because each of these strange folk set themselves apart in a different way.
It’s much easier to define minds like former GE CEO Jack Welch, who succeeded because of his set of management principles. Louis Gerstner turned IBM around by facilitating change. Both of them wrote books outlining all the decisions they made, how they made them and why. Jobs, on the other hand, thrived off his taste – what he did in his lifetime with Apple simply worked.
Take the Apple brand for example. Marketers preach transparency and authenticity, and keeping a running commentary with their customers so that everyone can feel like they’re part of a brand’s story. Apple is shuttered and elitist, yet, its fans around the world are as adamant as any. It’s an outlier, and it just works.
You shouldn’t be like him because he was an asshole, and that wasn’t what made him successful.
Nearly everything he did in the workplace defied the pillars of modern management theory. Managers are supposed to be good listeners. Managers are supposed to empower employees and not micromanage. Managers are supposed to coach workers. Managers are supposed to take real interest in the success of their subordinates. He did none of this, and he was an asshole throughout it all.
Which begs the question: was Jobs’ success because of his jerkiness, or in spite of it? After all, he did get booted from Apple in the first place largely because of that. Tom McNichol recently dove into the topic in a stellar article in The Atlantic. He concluded, “Steve Jobs didn’t succeed because he was an asshole. He succeeded because he was Steve Jobs”.
And McNichol is right. Jobs was a strange sort of genius, and that’s something none of us never be able to replicate. We praise his ability to get things done purely through force of will. That’s impossible. Even the most indomitable spirit could keep failing, even if that spirit never breaks. He had that something extra, but meanwhile, he pushed people away. Jobs was so concentrated on his vision that he was an asshole to the people around him, and it drove them nuts. Yes, it worked, but only because of the value of the ideas in Jobs’ head.
There are things you can learn from the life of Steve Jobs (many are things not to do), but these are lessons to take with you when you’re thinking about how to better your life, not how to make decisions in the board room. He showed us how to be passionate, honest and believe in the power of knowledge, but he didn’t give us a template for running a business.
And if you read his biography, you won’t be able to resist trying to be like him.
It’s hard for us to separate the business from the person in Jobs’ case because he was so spectacularly successful. Apple’s brand has accomplished what most marketers not dare dream of – a fully devoted, and massive, cult following. Apple’s design has become world-renowned. Strategically, Apple fought the tech behemoths of old, survived and came out the other side, more powerful than ever.
Still, we press on, and try to glean everything we can from Jobs’ life. We have that need because we’re terrified. We’re afraid that we’ll never see a mind like his again, just as we were with other visionaries like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. We want to comb through their lives for every morsel of knowledge that they could have possibly left behind for us.
That feeling has been amplified with Jobs. We felt closer to him than people at the time did to Ford or Edison. When Jobs spoke, he did with charisma and conviction, and we witnessed it firsthand because TV and the web are so prominent now. We connected with him personally, because he stood side-by-side with the Apple brand, which is an incredible force on its own.
If the temptation is too much, try your best to read Isaacson’s book as a narrative that’s taking you through the life of one of our age’s most influential people. Read it on a personal level, where you can find a personal connection with a man that created one of the most personal brands ever. Instead of trying to be like him, try to accomplish something equal to what he did during his lifetime. To, as Jobs said, put “a ding in the universe.” And that can’t be done through any amount of lessons. That comes from a person’s individual drive, which can only be found through introspection.
But whatever you do, don’t ever try to be Steve Jobs. That’s a venture doomed to failure.
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