Steve Jobs' Style: Everything We Know About Managing Is Wrong

Most management books teach the boss to delegate tasks and build consensus. Jobs did just the opposite.
November 25, 2011

We have never seen such an outpouring of grief for a corporate CEO as we did when Steve Jobs died in October. People loved him for the revolutionary changes he brought to computers, music and animation.

But after I read Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs, I realized that everything I had learned about how to manage a successful business was wrong.

Jobs built Apple into the most valuable company in the world by ignoring traditional management advice. I learned the stock management techniques at IBM, in my own businesses and from the books I have read.

Most management books teach the boss to delegate tasks, build consensus and motivate employees with the carrot, not the stick. Jobs did just the opposite.

According to Isaacson’s account, Jobs ran Apple by being egotistical and uncompromising. He frequently ranted, threatened and made embarrassing outbursts against his employees and rivals. He even publicly cried sometimes. Jobs handpicked Isaacson to be his biographer, so what he writes is very credible.

So, can we adapt Jobs' style to our own small businesses to build a more profitable company? Here are a few things we can learn from a great corporate leader.

1. Don’t confuse consensus with collaboration

Jobs was not interested in consensus. He didn’t care if people agreed with him. He felt that he knew better than his employees or even the consumer. He insisted on having his way. 

He pushed his employees extremely hard, way out of their comfort zones. Jobs was good at getting people to work together to accomplish things they didn’t believe they could achieve. That’s the definition of leadership!

Lesson for the small business owner: You need a clear vision, not agreement. Push ahead, but foster collaboration to make that vision a reality and turn it into a profitable product or service.

2. The ends always justify the means

Jobs’ mantra was that Apple was on this earth to create the greatest products. In his mind, whatever he had to do to get there was justified.

Lesson for the small business owner: As long as it’s not illegal or immoral, push as hard as you can to get what  your company needs to best serve its customers. If you are successful in business, the ends will likely justify the means.

3. Leadership vs. management

Jobs also did not confuse leadership with management. His style was uncompromising. While he may not have been a great manager, he built a stellar team of managers like Tim Cook, Eddy Cue, Jonathan Ives and Phil Schiller. They complemented his style. They all had to have an opinion on a matter or Jobs would mow them down. They all performed well even when he was on medical leave


Lesson for the small business owner: Build a strong management team that is complementary to your strengths and style. It is still critical to the company's success.

4. Focus, focus, focus

Every Monday morning, Jobs would meet with his senior management team to discuss where Apple was going. Rather than explore many directions, he felt his job was to pare down what Apple was working on. Jobs said he learned this while pruning trees in his friend's apple orchard.

Jobs' approach was to work on fewer products, but make them the best.


Lesson for the small business owner: Focus your business on less, not more. Most small businesses want to be everything to everybody. They don’t want to miss any revenue opportunities. This is just the opposite of what Jobs did. Do a few things well like Apple did with the iMac,  iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.

5. Commitment to the long haul

Jobs didn't care what other people thought or how long it took to accomplish his goal. He was committed to his long-term vision. For example, his digital hub strategy became iTunes.

Lesson for the small business owner: Stay the course. Overnight success sometimes takes seven to 10 years.

Weigh in: Are you changing your management style as a result of Jobs’ unparalleled success?