Steve Job’s passing may be one of those events that our memory swallows whole. Those that punctuate our life stories and we remember from within, as personal experiences. Where we were when we heard the news, what we were doing, with whom. Whether it was an iPhone or iPad we first learned it on. Steve’s death, in that respect, did not just happen to him. It happened to us.
Like many others, I watched my Twitter stream swell up in unison. Everyone talking about him, many expressing surprise about how moved they felt by the news of his passing. In a day and age of resentment towards corporate elites, protests on Wall Street and general mistrust for leaders in every sector, here we all were — mourning a CEO. Many have captured lessons from Steve’s life and work already. But what can we learn from our response to his departure?
The paradox is even starker when you consider that he was ruthless, a micromanager who berated subordinates and wanted the last word. He erected a wall of secrecy around Apple’s activities and fired anyone who broke it. He threatened journalists who criticized his products, and mocked the idea of asking customers what they wanted. He did not let go of his job until the very end. He may have been a genius and a charmer, but he was far from the person the leadership books tell you to be. And even the authors of those books are chiming into the global choir singing his praise.
How did that happen? Why did his daily behavior not taint our admiration? Is the shock of his untimely death clouding our judgment, or should we cynically conclude that if you’re extremely successful you can get away with it? Not quite. The reason for much untainted admiration, I suspect, is that we are not mourning a leader or an innovator.
Steve may have led and innovated his whole life but he was, ultimately, an artist. Those behaviors, which we may not condone in a leader, we forgive and even expect of an artist.
He was a creator. Steve’s life, his products, and his company were creations to him. To the extent he could, he strove to shape and control them, and at the same time to make them accessible to the masses. Like, say, Michelangelo his sculptures.
His work was meaningful. That is, full of meaning, for him and for us. Like great works of art, Steve’s creations were acts of personal expression. Everything Apple transudes his passion — blending IT and design, beautiful and useful. At the same time, those creations did not impose his meaning. Like, say, a Picasso, they provoked and invited users to figure out what they meant, and what to do with them.
He was both real and larger than life. While he never pretended, Steve always performed. Like great actors, he was most himself on a stage, in a role. His work was his life. He spoke for and embodied the value of crafting one’s own path, becoming an icon of those elusive cravings of our time — authenticity and passion at work.
He was committed. Steve’s passion for his work bordered on obsession. He strove for perfection and was uncompromising in its pursuit. He suffered years of ostracism, misunderstanding and illness without losing faith in the value of making gorgeous, useful technology. If there was an IT muse, he utterly surrendered to it.
He hated failure, but took it into account. There was dropping out of college and being fired from Apple, the iPhone 4 antennas and Apple TV. All were painfully frustrating and yet part of the creative process. There was, most of all, that inevitable failure. Death. Constantly looming for the past few years. He met it not with (a) resignation, but with determination to live and create fully, every day.
It wasn’t about money or fame. Steve benefited financially from his creations and may have well rehearsed his performances, much like a rock star does. But profit and popularity were not the aim. As for the Beatles, U2 or Lady Gaga, they were but a means for bigger and bolder productions.
It wasn’t about him. It was about us. Ultimately, what made Steve’s work so revered is not his passion but ours. He kept doing his thing. We went crazy about it. Solitary as he was, he got the widespread need for voice, connection and meaning of our times. He stood for and offered us technology we could make our own — and make ourselves through. We could all be artists on the canvas he created.
Like true artists, great leaders are instruments of a purpose and community. Not the other way around. We grieve them deeply because they connect us to ourselves, and once they’re gone we fear that connection lost. Wherever he is, I like to think Steve would chuckle reading the columns that distill his leadership formula, including this one. The great iconoclast and inventor of desktop icons turned into an icon himself. The man who reviled emulation transfigured into a series of bullet points. To honor his memory we should vow to never imitate him. He’d rather want us to be inspired.