Three more (surprising) leadership lessons from Steve Jobs

Updated to Business on December 14, 2022.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

By now, it’s well known Steve Jobs, the genius behind Apple, iTunes, and Pixar, was far from being the perfect leadership model. He was equally famous for his hostile outbursts, damn-the-torpedoes attitude, and irreverent social graces as he was for his entrepreneurial and promotional genius.

Despite all that, we can learn from him.

Here are, yet three more, surprising lessons I have learned from Steve Jobs.

#1 Simplify life

The now-famous jeans and black turtleneck, ‘billionaire outfit’ that Jobs wore day in and day out had a purpose. Sure, it was a small statement of defiance, but it also conserved willpower. Huh?
The work of Roy Baumeister, Willpower: rediscovering the greatest human strength and others, reveals that willpower, the essential inertia we need to get things done – even when we don’t want to – is exhausted with every decision made. This is why you make stupid decisions, like staying up late watching Duck Dynasty reruns, while downing a bag of stale Doritos.

Think of it like a container, filled to 100% with willpower – that’s what you start your day with. Deciding what to have for breakfast, should you go for a run, and what clothes to wear burns through your reserve.

Routines (like what clothes to wear), habits, and systems, conserve willpower. Read more about willpower in my post How drinking tea can make you rich and build willpower.  It’s no wonder Obama only wears black and grey suits, Tony Robbins has his presentation outfits organized by number, and Bill Gates, well, he just dresses badly.

#2 Demand quality

Safe to say, Apple products are beautiful. Even the packaging for your new iPhone is something to marvel at (I can’t bear to throw mine away). There’s a reason for that.

When Jobs realized in 1999 he needed retail outfits, he recruited top talent. Ron Johnson, of Target fame, Mickey Drexler, of GAP, and even Larry Ellison (CEO, Oracle) would frequently tour the secret prototype store hidden in a warehouse in Cupertino, California.

No detail was overlooked. Jobs insisted on a gray-blue Pietra Serena sandstone hand-cut from a family-owned quarry in Florence, Italy, and titanium supports for glass supports on staircases. Despite all that, and after six months of intense work, Jobs insisted the product displays be completely reworked to centre on function (for example, these products are for movies), instead of product lines (these are computers).

It would take another full year before Jobs would give the green light for the first Apple store to open, May 19, 2001 in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. Ten years later, sales from Apple stores were $9.8 billion and they gross more per square foot than any store in the world and earn more in total dollars, including Manhattan Fifth Avenue icons, like Saks and Bloomingdale’s (which inspired Jobs in the first place).

In a world of unkept promises (like contractors who sound so helpful, but never show), built-in obsolescence (like cars that mysteriously break down once your warranty expires), and sloppy customer service, it’s down-right wonderful that Apple products work and their service is stunningly good.

We can learn from that legacy.

#3 Ignore history

Jobs was not the first person, by any stretch, to build a portable music player. Sony, for example, had been pumping out Walkmans for years. But, in his words, Jobs thought they ‘truly sucked’.

The one ace up his sleeve, that eventually would place iPod as the market leader, was Jobs also ignored history.

It would have been easy to tweak existing designs and improve on them. Instead, Jobs started from scratch to create a product so exceptionally superior (remember ‘1,000 songs in your pocket?’) it was beloved by early adopters, and quickly outpaced competitors.

The iPod allowed you to scroll songs with your thumb, complicated functions (like create a playlist) were removed, and no function took more than three clicks. And, unlike the competitors, there was no on/off button (which became true of most Apple devices) – there was no need – they go dormant if not being used, and wake up when you touched a key.

And then, with a stoke of genius, Jobs added the iconic white earbuds so millions of proud owners became walking billboards for the Apple brand.


Legacy, or lessons learned?Steve_Jobs_by_Walter_Isaacson

It’s easy to distance yourself from the strange universe called silicon valley and the bearded start-up kings who became overnight millionaires. Don’t.

Steve Jobs showed us there was a different way to show up and get things done. We may not want to mimic his insanely driven, sometimes ruthless, approach, but we can learn from how effective he was at challenging assumptions, creating world-changing results, and putting a dent in the universe.

Note, all details in this post came from the brilliant biography, Steve Jobs (a must read for any self-respecting business leader), by Walter Isaacson.