Steve Jobs was an amazing creative force. Much has already been written in the last day after his passing and much will be written about his contributions to movie animation, to computing and to music for years to come.
His contributions were far reaching, and among the most profound of those was his insistence on keeping technology (and marketing) simple and “human.” Jobs not only simplified technology, he never forgot that he was creating products for people – to make their lives easier and better. He built the kinds of products he wanted. He started with the “human factor.” How do people use technology and why is so much technology so anti-human? He saw an opportunity to focus on making technology elegant, sleek, and “user-friendly” – Apple’s distinct point of difference compared to its PC counterparts. Apple made “user-friendly” a part of our design and marketing lexicon, and put itself at the center of a customer-centric technological revolution.
Jobs infused a liberal arts-based, anthropological approach to product design. He put users at the center of the product universe; challenging the status quo of computing that forced humans to conquer steep learning curves, regardless of what their “human needs” were. His products helped unleash creativity and the Mac became the platform of choice for artists and designers (and still is for many).
And he simplified not just technology design, he revolutionized marketing. A masterful showman and storyteller, Jobs also made technology marketing fun, exciting and uncomplicated. In his predicable and simple stage uniform of jeans and a black turtleneck, Jobs took the focus off of himself and any CEO largesse. Instead, he put the spotlight on products. They were the star, and yet, with his stamp all over them, his name became synonymous with product and corporate leadership. As the years and evolutions happened, Apple (and Jobs) never lost sight of the fact that “simplicity” and “user-friendly” were core brand attributes that shaped everything it did. And brand control, of course, driven by an unwavering commitment to simple, quality products. And he proved that keeping technology and marketing simple was anything but. That was his genius.
Jobs’ ability to tell a great product story on stage is mirrored by his own life story which parallels Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey archetype. Kicked out of the company he started by 30, Jobs later returned and redeemed it. After a series of missteps and CEOs that brought Apple to its knees, Jobs’ resurgence as chief executive brought a company on the precipice back to runaway financial success. He grew its profits by over 7,000%. And he did it with a singular focus putting humanity and simplicity at the core of Apple’s products.
Jobs’ leadership style has been dissected by the press over and over. He wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with all the time. Few driven leaders are. Jobs is revered as an icon in the leadership literature, and Apple is a classic textbook case study in marketing. His story and the rise of Apple make me proud of my Silicon Valley heritage (born and raised here, folks!).
But the venerated Jobs-as-leadership “model” also gives me pause. You see, how many leaders are there out there like Jobs? Painfully few. Jobs’ passing leaves a vacuum in the Valley in terms of customer-centric leadership. Jobs was one of a kind. But the fact that we cite Apple and Jobs as “THE” model (and it used to be HP in the Valley) makes me ask, “where are the other inspirational leaders in Silicon Valley that champion simplicity and humanity?” We need more similarly-minded leaders, more business culture templates to be written, and we need more storyteller role models in technology. Jobs will always be a model, but if he remains the only one we cite, we’re in trouble.
Because I grew up here, I will always welcome (and agree with!) the Jobs-as-icon accolades. And I want to be able to stand up and say to the world, “We can replicate that success. See, we’re not just innovators in technology! We’re innovators in leadership and in business culture. Look at all these examples.”
If Jobs has inspired nothing else, let it be another human-focused, leadership-led renaissance. After all, it’s part of our innovation heritage.