by Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011. xvi, 630 pp.
Walter Isaacson is CEO of the Aspen Institute, past chairman of CNN, and past managing editor of Time magazine. He was author or co-author of biographies for Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Kissinger, among other books.
Steve Jobs was founder of Apple and Pixar, providing the visionary leadership for both. His focus was on elegant, attractive, capable products driven by insight into what people would want. He didn’t believe in focus groups, on the assumption that he knew better what people would want than they did. Through his leadership, Apple was propelled to the position of the most valuable company in the world, following a strategy of putting perfect products ahead of financial tradeoffs. He became a cult hero for the countercultural, admired by those who despised large corporations.
When Jobs found he was dying of cancer, he contacted Isaacson and asked him to write his story. He introduced him to his colleagues and friends, gave him time for personal conversation (over 40 interviews), and committed not to filter the final result in any way.
The result is a picture of the life of an American icon unlike any other. Growing up in an adopted family, Jobs struggled with his identity. He developed a friendship, and partnership, with the co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak. He struggled with formal education but stumbled on a calligraphy class that helped him focus his artistic talent. He struggled with relationships with his employees, treating them poorly and rarely recognizing their accomplishments. Yet his charisma and brilliance allowed him to attract great people and to build Apple, and Pixar, into true leaders in innovation.
I loved the book, but not necessarily Steve Jobs. He was a brilliant and deeply flawed individual. His incredible insight and passion for excellence was often countered by his arrogance and seeming contempt for others. We love to have heroes or villains to cheer or boo, but Jobs fit neither mold. It is important to learn that even the most flawed individual can have great strengths, and brilliant leaders can have significant weaknesses. The 630 pages seemed to fly by.
Part of the attraction to the book for me was the timeframe, since I grew up in the world of technology during the same period. Another was my personal prior interaction with Jobs. When he was CEO of NEXT computer, after being fired from Apple, and before he was brought back to lead the company to the top, he was speaking in Bellevue, Washington, and I had the opportunity to introduce him. Later, I was at the annual Fortune Business Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Seattle when Jobs was honored. There he told the story of calling David Packard, the co-founder of HP, while still in junior high school, for help with access to electronic parts for his science project. Packard not only helped him, but became a mentor, and offered him a job as soon as he turned 16. He told the audience that he had always tried to support younger people because of what Packard had done for him. I am sure that was his intent whether he fulfilled this or not.
David Brooks once said that reading helps us open our own minds since we can vicariously encounter situations we would never experience in our own lives. That’s what I found in this book. I would rate this as one of the top books I have read in the past decade, and highly recommend it.
Reviewed by Al Erisman