Jim Collins On The Real Lesson of Steve Jobs

This is the second of five parts.

In the public’s imagination, Steve Jobs is forever linked to the image of the ultimate technology tyro, a mercurial creative business genius. But during a recent interview, Jim Collins, one of the most acclaimed management thinkers of our time, explained why that widely-publicized version of Jobs misses the real point of his life and career. (Read part one of the interview, on leadership in America, and part three, on the big question that launched Collins’ career.)

I was teaching a class at Stanford in 1988. It was “Entrepreneurship In Small Business.” I was 30 years old—I didn’t know, really, what I was doing. I wanted to do a course on “how you start and build a great company. An enduring great company?” And I thought, “Wow, that’s a great question. I’m going to need to lend some weight to the class on that.”

So I thought, “I need somebody to help me kind of figure out how to do this, how to teach this.” So I picked up the phone and I called Steve Jobs and I said, “Hey, you don’t know who I am. But I’m teaching this course down here at Stanford, it’s about how to start great companies, build them into great companies. And I’m wondering if you’ll come down and do a session with me and my students.” And Steve, he was very gracious about it and he said, “Sure, I’ll be happy to come down and do that.” He was always gracious in my experience.

Now, this was 1988. Three years before that, he had gotten booted out of his own company. So when he comes to my classroom, he’s not the Steve Jobs we all know today. He was in the wilderness—truly in the wilderness. So much so that when there was a gathering of about 500 Silicon Valley leaders—the most important ones—for a meeting with the president, he didn’t get an invitation.

And he comes to my class and we have this wonderful session with my students. He was so passionately engaged about what computers could do, how they could be bicycles for the mind. “Look, you can build something that’s 1,000 times more powerful. Or you could make one computer that is one-one thousandth as powerful, but put it in 1,000 hands. I want to put it in 1,000 hands. What will that do for the world?” He was already thinking like that.

He never lost the passion for the overall question of what he was doing, but he had been humbled. Even though he was angry and bitter and all those things, he didn’t let that consume him. Instead, he channeled it all into, “Boy, I’ve got some things I’ve got to figure out.” He gets ahold of Pixar and learns from [Pixar CEO] Ed Catmull—who is a classic archetype Level 5 leader—and learns how to not just be a creative genius, but how to create a more creative culture.


Jim Collins: The Chief Executive Interview
Part 1: On Leadership in America | Part 2: The Real Legacy of Steve Jobs | Part 3: The Big Question | Part 4: The Big Takeaways | Part 5: The Case for Being Great


In the later years of his life, he wanted Apple to be an enduring great company. The last thing he wanted was to go away and prove that he was indispensable and Apple would fall apart. He was racing the clock to make Apple a great company that could continue without him.

So here’s a person who starts off as this kind of young, petulant, charismatic…The consummate example [of a Silicon Valley titan]. But the message of Steve Jobs’ life isn’t what he was when he was 20 years old, right? And so, the Silicon Valley culture of that you’ve got to be like Steve was when he was 20 years old, well, Steve, when he was 20 years old, could not have done what he did at 47 to 58, because he had to grow and mature.

He had to grow and mature into “It’s not about me, it’s about the company and it’s about the cause. It’s not about everything being dependent on me. I have to build a culture, I have to think about a successor, I have to think about setting this thing up to do well over time. And in the end, what matters is, I want Apple to be an enduring great company and prove it didn’t need me.”

Edited for length and clarity. Read Part 3: The Big Question.

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Dan Bigman
Dan Bigman is Editor-in-Chief and Chief Content Officer for Chief Executive Group, which includes Chief Executive magazine, Corporate Board Member magazine, and ChiefExecutive.net.

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