Wunderkind. Jerk. Innovator. Tyrant. (All of the above.) Even now, almost four years after his death, it’s hard to read a story about Steve Jobs that doesn’t rely on these kinds of generic labels to explain his character, that doesn’t paint him as an obstreperous ingrate who never changed, who cowed coworkers and competitors with an almost magical "reality distortion field."
It’s a strange phenomenon, given the extraordinary story of his life: A callow businessman, a young college dropout whose behavior was so divisive and undisciplined that he was exiled in 1985 from the company he founded, turns around and becomes the radically effective visionary leader of a company that became the most valuable enterprise on earth. Surely this can’t be explained by a set of stereotypes that haven’t changed for three decades.
Three years ago, fellow journalist Brent Schlender and I set out to try to take the long view of Jobs’s career. I had worked behind the scenes as an editor on many Apple stories for both Fast Company and Fortune. Brent knew Steve well. For more than two decades, he reported on him for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune, interviewing him dozens of times. The two became close, albeit within the bounds of a journalist/source relationship; Steve regularly introduced Brent as his "friend." Brent believed that Jobs had changed more than any other businessman he had covered.
At first, Steve’s closest colleagues were reluctant to speak with us. Our earliest interviews were with people who had parted ways with Jobs at some point, often under difficult circumstances. But even they felt he was misunderstood. Susan Barnes was the financial manager for the Mac team and CFO of NeXT Computer. She left NeXT because she believed Steve was squandering its capital. Steve totally cut her off, immediately, turning off her email and phone the day she resigned. Yet Barnes was deeply emotional when recalling Jobs; like others we spoke to, she still referred to him in the present tense. "You read the books, and you can’t understand why anyone would ever work for this guy," she told us. "He is an amazing boss." When former Apple hardware chief Jon Rubinstein signed on with Palm Computing, Steve excoriated him on the phone, calling him a traitor to Apple. Yet, says Rubinstein, "Steve can be truly charming. No one ever manages to explain that. And he always cared deeply."
When members of Steve’s inner circle finally began meeting with us, they further undermined the stereotype. Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar and perhaps the most important mentor in Steve’s life, told us that Steve was constantly trying to improve in both his business decisions and his private behavior. "I look at Steve as someone who was actually always trying to change," says Catmull, who knew and worked with Steve for 25 years. "But he didn’t express it in the same ways as others, and he didn’t communicate with people about that. It didn’t come across as him being personally introspective."
What emerged from these exclusive interviews—with Jony Ive and Tim Cook, Bill Gates and Bob Iger, and others, including Steve’s widow, Laurene Powell Jobs—was a very different picture of Jobs. Steve was someone with a deep hunger for learning, who breathed in an education wherever he could find it, from his youthful pilgrimage to India to his key mentors and his longtime colleagues at NeXT, Pixar, and Apple. Powell Jobs goes so far as to call him a "learning machine." He learned from his many failures and relentlessly applied those lessons. This wasn’t an obvious process—Steve always preferred to talk about the future rather than the past, so there are very few examples of him reflecting on his triumphs and missteps, or acknowledging a lesson learned. But like most of us, he tried to use what he learned to take better advantage of his strengths and temper his weaknesses. It was a lifelong effort, and, like most of us, he succeeded in some ways and failed in others.
Steve was always changing. Thinking of him this way casts him in a very different light from the more common view of him as a stubborn force of nature. It reframes what those of us fascinated by and engaged in business can draw from his example. If you search for "Steve Jobs" books on Amazon, you’ll find that most carry such titles as Steve Jobs: Ten Lessons in Leadership or The 66 Secrets of Steve Jobs: The Most Complete Step-by-Step Guide Ever Written on Becoming the Next Steve Jobs. Book publishers clearly believe that readers are dying to mimic a magical "Steve Jobs Recipe for Success." (One possible exception: Steve Jobs Returns With His Secrets, which is, according to its jacket copy, a "spiritual interview with Steve Jobs, conducted just three months after his death.")
But there is no such recipe. "You should call your book Don’t Try This at Home," Bill Gates told us. "That’s the degree of difficulty of what Steve achieved." There are no truisms about design or simplicity or focus that will transform you or your company. Instead, there’s a narrative of constant change. The evolution of the iPad did not resemble the flash creation of the Apple II. The way Steve assembled and managed the team at Apple in the 2000s had little in common with the way he rallied the band of pirates that built the Mac. What Steve left behind was the process of his life, not a series of diktats.
Thinking of his career and life as a fluid history changes what we can learn from Jobs. It changes his legacy and how we have to think about the future of Apple. What follows here are three unconventional assessments—and the ways in which they continue to drive the company Steve launched. (Our book, Becoming Steve Jobs, which is being published by Crown on March 24, offers more, and fuller, insights.) For starters, we have to reconsider Steve’s image as a solitary genius who on his own simply willed breakthrough products into existence.
Despite his reputation as a tyrannical micromanager, Jobs maintained an excellent and relatively stable executive team during his second tenure at Apple. The more mature and confident he became, the more he surrounded himself with strong, opinionated executives who felt comfortable arguing with him. This was something he had learned during his exile from Apple.
For much of its first decade, Apple was riven by internal conflicts, many of them initiated or exacerbated by Steve. After getting fired, however, he had the good luck to experience, at Pixar, a strong collaborative culture. It had been molded by Ed Catmull, a would-be animator who had developed into a great manager over the years. As he steered Pixar through the many difficult periods that preceded the creation of Toy Story, he nurtured an intelligent, respectful, and effective culture. Catmull was so firmly in charge of the place that he was able to keep Steve from getting too involved in the production, so Jobs watched from a distance as writers and animators worked their way through failed plotlines, poorly conceived characters, and interference from Disney’s then-chief of animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg. After Toy Story, he got to see the team do it again, with A Bug’s Life, and then again and again and again. "Watching our collaboration, where we were making ourselves better by working together, I think that fueled Steve," says John Lasseter, the director of Toy Story, who now heads up Disney Animation and Pixar with Catmull. "That was one of the key changes when he went back to Apple. He was willing to be open to the talent of others, to be inspired by and challenged by that talent, but also to inspire them to do amazing things he knew he couldn’t do himself."
In 1997, when Jobs returned to Apple, the person he kept around from the old Apple regime was Fred Anderson, the CFO. Most of the executive team were newcomers, including Rubinstein, software chief Avie Tevanian, and Tim Cook, who joined in 1998 from Compaq. Jobs gave the group huge responsibilities and plenty of leeway. Anderson says Steve didn’t interfere much in the financial operations of the company. "It wasn’t his strength, and he knew it," he says. Former Apple retail chief Ron Johnson once told a group of Stanford MBA students, "Steve was the best delegator I ever met." Others, like Rubinstein, were indeed micromanaged but they could give as good as they had to take. "I fought with him for 16 years," says Rubinstein. "It was almost comedic. I remember one Christmas morning, we’re on the phone screaming at each other and both of our significant others are in the background, saying, ‘Come on, we have to get going, get off the damn phone.’ " According to Barnes, Steve’s best collaborators understood that "you had to listen past the yelling to understand what the yelling was about."
Each member of that early team performed heroic work. Anderson reengineered the company’s finances; Cook slashed inventory and eventually built a reliable global supply chain that fed into an agile network of contract factories that could pound out tens of millions of devices every year; Tevanian created the operating system that supports all of Apple’s various software even today; Rubinstein oversaw the development of Apple’s Macs, iPods, and other hardware products. Then there was a designer, by the name of Jony Ive, whose sleek but playful sensibility led to the iMac, which was the first step on the road to Apple’s recovery. Says Bill Gates, "That is a really crack team that bonded with each other in toughness. I mean, you can point to every member of that team and say, ‘Okay, he earned his pay, he earned his pay, he earned his pay.’ There’s no weakness in that team."
Jobs’s executive team repeatedly steered him away from trouble and in the right direction. When Steve fell in love with digital movie editing in 1999, Apple made a nifty piece of software called iMovie. It was up to the members of the executive team to convince Steve that digital music was a better bet, and they did so at a hastily called meeting in early 2000 at the Garden Court Hotel in Palo Alto. Jobs quickly conceded that they were right; iTunes was released 12 months later, and the iPod less than a year after that. When Jobs initially introduced the iPhone, he famously barred independent developers from creating software for the device. It was only after he listened to his team that he allowed the creation of the App Store, which secured the iPhone’s place in history.
The resurrection of Apple was a team effort, a fact that gets overlooked to the detriment of everyone, including Steve. Managing a team that could support the long-term goals of a corporation was not one of his innate gifts. While he had rallied a talented group to create the Mac, many in that team were burned out by the process. Worse yet, the Mac was actually a feeble computer when first released in 1984. But Steve taught himself how to become a better manager, and when he returned to Apple, he was able to sustain a strong executive group for years and deliver first-rate products almost every time.
Jobs is often heralded for the breakthrough products he delivered, ranging from the Apple II to the iPad. But the process of developing those breakthrough products changed completely over the course of his life. Jobs the revolutionary became Jobs the incrementalist.
In 1991, during an interview Brent conducted with Jobs and Gates at Steve’s house in Palo Alto (they’d do only one more joint interview, many years later), Gates argued that incrementalism was exactly what the computer industry needed. Thinking about his corporate customers, he said, "All I want is a car that will run on the current streets. I’m on this evolutionary path." At that point, Jobs had a different goal. He loved transformative moments like the Apple II and the Mac, and that’s what he had hoped to deliver with the NeXT Computer. "The real trick is to balance that incremental improvement with some big steps," he said. "The standard bearer needs a kick in the ass every once in a while."
By the time he returned to Apple, just six years later, Steve had moderated his approach. He applied the incremental approach he’d seen work so well at Pixar for Lasseter and Catmull. After selling NeXT to Apple in December 1996, Steve spent months studying the massive challenges facing the Cupertino company. At first, he didn’t even know whether he wanted to return to Apple. By the time he made the decision, in September 1997, to come back full-time as CEO, he understood the depth of Apple’s problems: massive inventory, an uninspired workforce, a woebegone share price, a meaningless market share. No single product could possibly revive the company. So he moved slowly, step by step. He launched an ad campaign, "Think Different," whose primary purpose was to reclaim the spirit of Apple for the company’s employees. He continued the layoffs and cost-cutting that Fred Anderson had set in motion, finding the A players, as he put it, while sussing out and firing the C team. He introduced a product, the iMac, that was more a trick of design than engineering. It was just enough to get people chattering positively about Apple again. For the first time in his career, Steve was playing the hand he was dealt, rather than trying to solve everything with one brilliant stroke.
Even during the remarkable product run that would come to define his legacy, progress came incrementally. As Apple moved into the consumer electronics business, its metabolism for pumping out upgraded versions sped up. So did its ability to physically build and distribute products. For all the talk of design genius and ingenuity, what Apple accomplished in terms of sheer execution during the 2000s (and is still accomplishing, for example, with sales of 75 million iPhones in its most recent quarter) is at least as remarkable. Before the iPod, Apple would sell tens of thousands of a particular item, hundreds of thousands if something became a hit; the iPod exceeded those quantities by an order of magnitude. This wasn’t simply a task of ramping up production at existing Apple facilities. It was about finding new suppliers and contract manufacturers; sourcing new kinds of metal and other materials; building, tracking, and constantly improving a new supply chain. It was about manufacturing millions of devices that consumers would embrace as prized jewels—and then retooling for a new version every 12 months.
The annual demands of the consumer electronics market made incrementalism a necessity. Yet each incremental advance also offered the potential for a new breakthrough. "I’ve always thought there are a number of things that you have achieved at the end of a project," says Ive. "There’s the object, the actual product itself. And then there’s all that you learned. What you learned is as tangible as the product itself but much more valuable, because that’s your future." Again and again, Apple took what it had learned from one product and applied it to the creation of something new and better. After creating iTunes, the team knew that most digital music players were pathetic, so they built the iPod. After working on the Rokr, a kludge of an iTunes-based music phone made by Motorola, the team understood better how to deal with carriers and what it would take to make the iPhone great. The obsessive work on the iPhone’s touch-screen interface led to an understanding of how to make the iPad more intuitive than any prior incarnation of tablets.
Jobs did have a genius for synthesizing what Apple learned as its product line expanded. That’s what fed the perfection of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, each of which was a new version of something others had tried, and failed, to market successfully. Steve was the epitome of a technologist, in the sense that technology is, more often than not, a product of recombinant thinking. Most "new" technologies are really new combinations of independent technologies that when put together create a new capability by virtue of their synergies. Apple’s incremental product cycles were what gave Steve the raw materials to visualize the future. His visions didn’t come from thin air.
When Jobs died, a simple question was asked over and over again: How could Apple possibly thrive now that its charismatic leader had been replaced by someone then known only as an "operations guy" (Tim Cook)? It turns out that the simple question was the wrong one, on many levels.
In 2008, Steve hired Joel Podolny away from the Yale School of Management to create Apple University. Apple U. isn’t anything like Pixar University, where animators can learn accounting and accountants can take drawing classes. Apple U. is designed to embed the why of Steve’s thinking into the company he left behind. It is an attempt to codify a set of corporate decision-making values. The classes are case studies, both of successes and failures. These aren’t sessions in how to be like Steve. Jobs didn’t want to leave behind a bunch of executives who would try desperately to learn how to be like him. He did want to hand the company to a group of people who would apply the same rigorous decision-making process that he applied during his last 15 years at Apple. He wanted a company that would continue to be collaborative, even without someone as charismatic at its center.
Cook is exactly what Jobs thought Apple would need going forward. Apple now sells a cumulative experience that involves lots of moving parts. Its hardware, software, and network services all have to work together, with whatever movies or music or other content that users want to tap into. Cook is a master of taming complexity. He first demonstrated this skill when he managed Apple’s switch to contract manufacturing and modernized the way the supply chain was managed. Frankly, Cook could successfully lead any number of complex companies, something no one would have ever said of Steve. ("Can you imagine Steve as the CEO of Microsoft?" Gates cackled during our long interview. "He would have been terrible.")
Instead, Cook is thriving at Apple, with the stock doubling during his tenure and the volume of units sold tripling. Like Steve, Cook is unsentimental about his executive team. Steve let Tevanian and Rubinstein depart when he thought it was time; Cook coolly dismissed software showman Scott Forstall. And like Steve, he is unafraid to strike out into new territory: When Steve envisioned the Apple Stores, he brought in a leader with no computing experience, Ron Johnson; Cook’s choice as head of retail, Angela Ahrendts, the former CEO of Burberry, also has limited tech chops but has a firsthand understanding of fashion that Apple lacks. Cook has also made moves that Steve likely never would have, such as creating a corporate philanthropy plan or opening up his personal life, as Cook did when he announced last year that he is gay. He is proving to be a very forceful leader, and charismatic in his very own way.
It’s extremely difficult to predict what Apple will look like in a few years. The company’s recent growth has again and again been driven by a sideways move into industries that need its computing expertise, and there may still be many such opportunities. Wherever Cook and the core team take Apple, they will have to apply the real lessons of Steve Jobs, not the ones perpetuated by the stereotype of the brilliant enfant terrible. For now, Apple’s leaders are rigorous, collaborative, and deeply open-minded. They will follow their noses and not look back. That is a big part of the real legacy they have inherited.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.