This article was originally posted shortly after the death of Steve Jobs. I revised it to reflect new knowledge after the movie about him was released.
As I considered the global outpouring of sadness and loss after the death of Steve Jobs, I thought about why he generated such tremendous affection. He was the head of very large corporations and he was very wealthy, which do not automatically endear one to most of us. Other company heads die each year without this near-universal reaction. Why was he so different?
In my own case, I have used Apple products for many years. I have enjoyed using Mac computers, and I am the proud owner of an iPod, which I no longer use, an iPhone, which I use constantly, and an iPad on which I started this piece. Those products were simply things that made my life more interesting, more productive and sometimes more hectic.
However, I used Steve Jobs' products long before I paid any attention to him as a person. It was not the attachment to the things he created that generated my sense of personal connection to him, and I imagine it was not the fact that he pushed innovation to the extreme that endeared him to the millions of people who were saddened by his loss.
Until about two years ago, I had heard his name without any real connection. I am not sure how I happened to see the Stanford University commencement address, which more than 29 million people have now viewed on YouTube. However, I watched the address with great interest; I found it inspiring and heartwarming. I was initially struck by the fact that he dropped out of college when he saw the hardship it produced for his adoptive parents.
I thought of a young man with little money who hung around college, sleeping on the floors of friends’ rooms and attending classes simply because of his curiosity. He audited calligraphy classes because the topic interested him. He reflected on this chance experience that fostered innovation in product design later in his life. He called it “connecting the dots.”
In the Stanford address, Steve Jobs told graduates to follow their hearts and engage in work that made them happy. (At least one of them reported that his comments changed the direction of her life.) He also reflected on his very public “failure” at Apple as well as his views about death. All his comments were very moving.
One can argue that without all the other traits, no one would express the degree of sadness we saw when he died, and that is probably true. He was incredibly creative, exacting and prolific. His innovative genius has touched the lives of all of us in modern society.
However, I believe it was the ability to touch people's hearts that made the difference. I know I cannot reasonably generalize my own experience to the whole population. However, as I viewed the comments and video clips in the news surrounding his death, I have repeatedly seen the commencement address at Stanford, the presentation of new products when he made people laugh with his boyish enthusiasm, and his interview with Brian Williams in which he said that when he thought about his success, the “most valuable thing” in his life was his family. These are the images people chose in tribute to him.
It is not the thousands of business and design meetings he attended, the hours of product review or the contradictory parts of his business life that those of us who did not know him. It is the moments in which he seemed genuine and in which he inspired us to be our best.
We can honor the products he created without honoring the man, as seen by the host of products we use every day without knowing who invented them. At his best, Steve Jobs demonstrated humor, creativity, overcoming adversity and devotion to family.
However, as shown by the movie released a few years after his death, he was also very flawed. He could be obsessive and nitpicky. He could be emotionally cold to those who loved him and wanted his affection in return.
His public face was apparently very different than his private face. He had the ability to touch the hearts of people who did not know him, but apparently he could not follow through with commitment to those who were with him every day.
People often see what they want to see. Steve Jobs successfully portrayed a person we would want to know and to have as a friend. He made us feel better about ourselves. He seemed authentic because he spoke of his own emotional and professional struggles. However, he was not authentic in his relationships. He succeeded in touching the hearts of many around the world who saw him as he wanted to be seen.
This is the challenge for leaders: Being the person they portray and warming the hearts of friends, family AND strangers.
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Steve Jobs Photo by Matt Yohe