The real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs

So far we have considered some 18 leadership lessons from Steve Jobs from Parts ONE, TWO and THREE of this series and how they may be relevant for legal leaders – all based on the Walter Isaacson article it the HBR. There are some things however I wouldn’t recommned for legal leaders.

He was feisty, scary, tough on people, very often unreasonable and downright rude – people at Apple didn't want to get in the lift with him! But he did have another side. . . . . ..

So what are the personal style and leadership characteristics of Jobs one would not recommend for legal leaders?

  1. being more about me than about you
  2. not caring about others’ feelings
  3. aggression and anger openly used in discussions with others
  4. out and out rejection of ideas – ‘that is crap
  5. strong language
  6. expecting/demanding the impossible
  7. being devious in demanding things from others
  8. being more selfish than selfless
  9. not taking a genuine interest in the personal and professional well-being of others
  10. simply expecting others to be able to handle his style and approach

and so on, you get the drift, but he, unlike most of us, could pull this off because of who he was and what he had achieved. He could afford to hire highly paid, highly capable, tough people who could handle it all and it worked, brilliantly. In my experience many senior leaders like managing partners don’t exhibit these tendencies, and I don’t think it would go down too well or be swallowed in a legal environment.However, pause and look around the office and there are usually some leaders who do – they need to be addressed on this as it can be a deadener to your employment brand if it is not.

And now, one last thing. . . . many of you will know Steve Jobs often ended off his renowned presentations – many of them quite long – with a pause, raised his finger, turned to the audience and said ‘ah, just one more thing . . . ‘ and then launched into discussion about a key development. This was the item that usually stuck in everyone’s mind.
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As highlighted in PART ONE and PART TWO of this series, there are real leadership lessons for legal leaders from the career, achievements and life of the late Steve Jobs – who in just two stints of 9 and 14 years, founded and then transformed Apple Computer into the world’s most valuable company. These were the lessons highlighted by Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs biography, in an April 2012 Harvard Business Review article ‘The real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs‘ (subscription required).

In this post we include a final batch of important lessons, again with liberal editing and interpretation for legal leaders.

Jobs liked engaging face to face but was tough on people, was a strategic guru but totally focused on detail, strongly believed in the confluence of the humanities and sciences and in staying hungry and foolish – so many contradictions, such a genius, and so much, with the right attitude, we can learn from him. (Image composite by Sean Larkan courtesy of Google Images – photographers unknown)

 13    Engaging face to face and death(?) to PowerPoint

Jobs felt that creativity came from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions and was a great believer in face-to-face meetings: “. . . you run into someone, you ask what they are doing, you say “wow”, and soon you are cooking up all sorts of ideas“. He designed his buildings to promote unplanned encounters and collaborations. He felt that if you did not encourage that you would lose a lot of innovation in the magic that is sparked by serendipity.


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Last week I posted PART ONE of a short four-part series on the real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs, based in part on an HBR article (subscription required) of a similar title by Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs autobiography. We continue the theme today!

A number  (but not all) of these provide great leadership and management pointers for legal leaders. I hope to persuade you to take some of these on board but of course they should not be slavishly followed – maybe emulate some, adapt others for your needs, your leadership style and firm needs, or simply think deeply about them.

It is not often in one’s life-time that one gets to experience, read about and learn from a unique character and leader of the ilk and achievements of Jobs. In his life-time he made no bones about pinching ideas and inspiration from others – I don’t think it is an opportunity any of us mere mortals should miss!  I wrote an article on related points in our Edge International Communiqué (PDF) which may also be of interest.

Of reading things not yet on a page, reality distortion fields, avoiding bozo explosions, making products feel friendly and casual and staying hungry and foolish – some of the many lessons from the business genius that was Steve Jobs, and what it can mean for law firm leaders (image compilation by Sean Larkan with thanks to the folk at Google Images)

6   ‘As leaders we need to read things that are not yet on the page

Jobs felt very strongly about understanding deeply about what clients want. However he regarded this as completely different to asking them what they want – simply because he didn’t feel they knew until they were told! He felt one needed to exercise and use one’s intuition and ascertain and nurture the desires of clients. As he said “our task is to read things that are not yet on this page“. He developed his intuition when studying Buddhism in India and felt it was a lot more important than intellect. Eknath Easwaran, mentioned in my last post, would have said the same.

There are lessons here for law firms as most like to follow what others are doing and not necessarily take the lead.  This is due to the prevalent fixed mind-set and passive-defensive styles of avoidance, oppositional and conventional behaviours, thinking and interaction that prevails, governed in many cases by an innate fear of failure. There have however been some wonderful examples in recent years, particularly in Australasia and Africa, of law firms doing some very innovative stuff!

7   You don’t have to be the first cab off the rank, but when you do go, you better offer something unique.
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Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs autobiography, commented in an April 2012 Harvard Business Review article ‘The real leadership lessons of Steve Jobs‘ (subscription required), that following the publication of his book many writers have tried to draw management lessons from Steve Jobs, however, most of them, incorrectly, became fixated rather on the “rough edges of his personality“. He feels that one has to recognise that Jobs’ personality and approach to business were inextricably inter-twined, and we should go beyond this to appreciate the keys to his success.

A number  (but not all) of these keys provide great leadership and management lessons for legal leaders. I hope to persuade you to take some of these on board. In practice I find that very few firms do. I wrote an article on related points in our Edge International Communiqué (PDF) which may also be of interest.

In the quirky and sometimes controversial way Steve Jobs led and managed, there are important lessons for legal leaders. To make the most of these does require a different attitude and approach to that which one normally associates with leading a firm in a conservative profession. (composite image with thanks to the folk at Google Images)

Jobs was an amazing human being. He achieved incredible things as he managed and led Apple to become the world’s most valuable company. Remarkably, this all happened in two relatively short periods between 1976 and 1985 (9 years) and from 1995 to 2011 (14 years) during which time he was booted out of the company but then brought back to resurrect and save it. A lot of this had to do with his leadership and management styles.

He transformed:

  • personal computing
  • animated films
  • music
  • phones
  • tablet computing
  • retail stores
  • digital publishing

He created:

  • Apple, the company
  • Apple Stores
  • iMac
  • iPhone
  • iPod
  • iPad
  • Pixar
  • iTunes
  • iTunes Store
  • MacBook
  • App Store
  • OSX Lion

Not bad for a college drop-out!  So, what are some of the lessons legal leaders can draw from all this?

1   Focus – ‘deciding what not to do as important as deciding what to do’


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