The Key Leadership Skill That Steve Jobs And Ben Franklin Share

Look at your iPhone and imagine your apps are gone. Facebook, Uber, the Weather Channel, the Huffington Post, Scrabble, Google Maps, Kindle, Instagram, LinkedIn, White Noise, Bitmoji…. Apps you use all the time with barely a thought. If Steve Jobs had his way, they wouldn’t have existed.

This according to Walter Isaacson, author of the biography Steve Jobs, speaking at the recent launch of the Anne and John McNulty Leadership Program at Wharton. He said that Jobs had a powerful need to maintain end-to-end control, and when the iPhone came out, he wouldn’t allow any third-party apps. He viewed them as “polluting his product.”

Steve Jobs

The Apple management team kept standing up to him, according to Isaacson, saying “‘You’ve got to let people build apps on top of this.’ And finally he responded, ‘OK, you a-holes, if you think you’re so smart, so go ahead and do it.’”

A statement like this was essentially Jobs’ version of “collaboration,” said Isaacson. “It was his way of saying, ‘You might be right, let’s try it.’”

“Within a year it was a two-billion-dollar industry,” he added.

Isaacson, a former TIME editor and former CEO of CNN, is a well-known biographer of great American leaders. In addition to Steve Jobs (2011), he has written Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003), Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), Kissinger: A Biography (1992), and The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (2014). He is now President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, D.C.

At the McNulty Leadership launch, Isaacson wove a tale of two famous figures who at first glance appear to have little in common: Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin. What leadership lessons can be drawn from their lives?

Ben Franklin: Bringing People to the Table

Any American business leader who practices collaborative leadership owes a great debt to Ben Franklin, according to Isaacson. “Franklin really helped invent … leadership based on collaboration and teamwork.”

“It was [Franklin’s] spirit of collaboration — even more than the rectitude of Washington in that chair — that I think helped set the tone for the innovative leadership that I’ve seen.”

Isaacson talked about the different personalities that came together to write the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, who can essentially be seen as Franklin’s leadership team. “You needed somebody of high rectitude in George Washington that everybody would respect. You needed really smart people like Jefferson and Madison. You needed passionate people like John Adams and his cousin Samuel. But what you really needed in Philadelphia for both of those conventions was somebody who could make everybody collaborate and bring them together.”

Referring to the “horrible hot summer” of 1787 in Philadelphia, in Independence Hall when the idea of a U.S. Constitution seemed to be “going down in flames,” Isaacson recounted how Franklin, then aged 81, delivered what Isaacson considers one of the great leadership speeches of history.

“He said, ‘When we were young tradesmen here in Philadelphia and we had a joint of wood that didn’t hold together, what we would do is we’d shave a little from one side, and then take a little from the other, until you had a joint that would hold together for centuries. So, too, we here at this convention must each join together and each part with some of our demands.’”

Franklin’s notion, said Isaacson, was that “compromisers don’t make great heroes, but they do make great democracies.” One of the major compromises that Franklin helped engineer resolved the heated battle for control between the large and small states. The solution gave the U.S. its bicameral legislative body: The House of Representatives in which representation is determined by states’ population, and the Senate where every state gets two senators regardless of population.

Isaacson noted that with the many institutions Franklin started in Philadelphia, whether it was a school, a hospital, or a library, he inscribed over the door, “‘The good we can do together exceeds what we can do individually.’”

“It was that spirit of collaboration — even more than the rectitude of Washington in that chair — that I think helped set the tone for the innovative leadership that I’ve seen throughout all the things I’ve written about in leadership in the United States and elsewhere.”

Steve Jobs: A Collaborative Leader?

Steve Jobs has often been described in extreme terms, both negative and positive: a control freak, a jerk, cruel, brash, narcissistic, brilliant, a dynamo, a genius, one of the greatest business executives of our time. The word “collaborative,” though, doesn’t often turn up.

“[Jobs said,] ‘Making products is hard. But what’s really hard is making a great team that will continue to make great products.’”

“Steve was somebody who was not known as a collaborative leader,” noted Isaacson. “If you read about him, you’ll see that he was strong and tough, and often unkind.”

But like Ben Franklin, Steve Jobs had the ability to marshal and inspire a great team, said Isaacson. And he valued the team above all. “When he was dying … in 2011 and I was there, I asked him at one point, as a leader of a business that he had started with a few friends … in a garage, and created what was then the most valuable company on earth: What product, what innovation [are you] proudest of?”

Isaacson expected Jobs to say the Mac, the iPhone, or the iPad. But he answered, “‘Here’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. Making products is hard. But what’s really hard is making a great team that will continue to make great products.’” Jobs said the best thing he ever did as an innovator and leader was to create a great team.

“Somehow or another, he engendered loyalty,” said Isaacson. “He would tell people that something they did wasn’t very good, he would be really tough on them, but he had an inspiring vision. And he was able to put together a very tight-knit team that would walk through walls with him.”

Isaacson shared an anecdote about the team working to build the original Macintosh computer. Jobs, while admiring the beautiful design of the new machine, noticed that the circuit board was “ugly” and the chips weren’t lined up right. The engineers responded, “‘Well, Steve, it’s in a sealed case. Nobody’s going to see it, nobody’s ever going to know.’”

Jobs made the group of about 25 engineers go to the backyard of the house he had grown up in, about 12 miles from Cupertino, California to see a fence he had helped his father build when he was about eight years old. Jobs said his father had insisted they make the back of the fence as attractive as the front. When Steve questioned this, saying nobody would ever see it or know, his father responded, “Yes, but you will know.”

Apple delayed shipping the Mac for about eight weeks, said Isaacson, while the engineers made the circuit board inside it “beautiful.” Jobs then got all their signatures on a whiteboard so he could have them engraved inside the machine.

He reportedly told them, “‘Now you’ve got the passion of a real team that are true artists.’”


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