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Steve Jobs' Bold Leadership

The following is an excerpt from A Fine Line: How Design Strategies Are Shaping the Future of Business, the book written by frog Founder Hartmut Esslinger in 2008. Hartmut and frog worked with Steve Jobs at Apple in the early 1980s to create the “Snow White” design language for the Apple IIc computer, and again in 1985 when Jobs briefly left Apple and started the computer company NeXT, where Hartmut and frog designed the NeXT Cube. In this passage from the book, Hartmut offers a glimpse into those tumultuous years for Apple and Jobs, and some insights into why the Apple CEO’s creative and strategic vision became so effective.

Seeing the Future and Supporting Bold Initiatives
By Hartmut Esslinger

To take another look at the power of bold and inspired leadership, let’s return to the story of Apple and its revolutionary leader, Steve Jobs. After I joined the company back in 1982, I quickly realized that Steve was almost fanatically focused on building Apple into the greatest consumer technology brand in the world—a focus that hasn’t wavered over the years. He has a sometimes-dictatorial manner that ticks off a lot of people, but he’s also a charismatic leader who inspires a deep-seated trust among his workers. Steve demands a lot from his team, and typical corporate mediocrity is not an option. He is and always has been the sole authority in determining what makes an “insanely great” Apple product and what doesn’t. Fortunately, his judgment is almost always right on—and when it isn’t, it’s close.

Most people underestimate Steve’s personal loyalty and integrity. When I worked with him he didn’t agree with every detail of my work but he did defend it against the naïve and politically motivated criticism I got from the majority of his established team (including Paul Kunkel, who later wrote a largely inaccurate and trashy book about Apple’s design in those early years). Steve wasn’t the only one at Apple who supported our bold design initiatives. Andy Hertzfeld, Bill Atkinson, Joanna Hofmann, and Susan Kare were great to work with, and showed real understanding and enthusiasm for the new design language Steve and I wanted to introduce throughout the company and its products.

To convert the Apple brand from a Silicon Valley start-up to global player, the company had to change its design and engineering processes as well as its industrial model. Steve recognized the masterful production processes taking hold in Japan and Singapore, and one of the first steps he took toward the “new” Apple was to launch several important collaborations with Asian electronics companies. Having been a good student with Sony, frog was in the position to help Apple optimize these collaborations.

The Macintosh SE and the Apple IIc were essentially Samsung products, because the production took place in Samsung’s Singapore manufacturing plant. We created the LaserWriter with Canon – a Japanese based company – by leveraging that company’s product excellence. We took a high-end Canon copier, ripped off the analog user interface, and put on a Macintosh board instead. In essence, we had created a type of Mac for printing.

Apple’s global relationships didn’t end in Asia, nor did its pursuit of design-infused technology. In fact, the true Apple breakthrough in the 80s was not the Apple IIc computer, but a printer the company created after licensing typestyles from the German technology company Berthold. At the time, the only choice most people had for a printer was the horrible dot-matrix style machine. After the licensing deal with Berthold, Apple offered consumers a typeset quality printer and gave birth to what would become the desktop printing revolution. The Apple Berthold printer was a true cultural shift, triggered by Steve’s overriding goal for innovation—a complete and inspiring user experience.

There were other companies back then collaborating with overseas businesses, but Apple was the first American electronics company to intelligently use collaboration and outsourcing with partners all over the world. To manage these external collaborations, Apple closely guarded its intellectual property by paying its partners for their developments, rather than mortgaging its intellectual capital to boost the bottom line—a strategy it continues to follow today.

In the midst of this progress, Apple’s board fired Steve Jobs. It was June 4th, 1985 – I remember the date well, because Steve and I were spending a lot of time together back then, and my wife and I ended up canceling a party we’d planned for my birthday on June 5th . Forget all the so-called rational explanations for this decision: Apple’s board was either misguided or just plain stupid. But the repercussions of Steve’s dismissal serve as a perfect example of the connection between bold leadership and the sustainability of success. 

As I’ve said, Apple did well for a short time after Steve left. But it wasn’t long before the company fell into a decline and nearly died. John Sculley was eventually fired, and Michael Spindler became CEO. Michael is a very fine man, but Apple was a leaking ship with too many holes for one man to fix. After he left, Dr. Gil Amelio took over as CEO, a decision that was about as smart as “having the boars doing the gardening” (a German proverb that might be tough, but in this case, dead on). After Amelio uprooted and tossed aside a third of the company’s employees, and after Apple’s stock dropped to a 12-year low, Apple’s board finally fired him and brought Steve back in 1997. 

When Steve was back in as iCEO (interim CEO) he asked me for strategic input and I recommended that Apple become a new kind of consumer-experience-driven company. By then Microsoft, Compaq, and Dell had re-defined personal computing (I also suggested that Apple make peace with Microsoft). Sony, Panasonic, Philips and even Samsung were asleep at the wheel because they didn’t have the ability or they refused to understand the need to converge hardware with software and content.

As always, Steve listened. In the years since his return he has focused on converting Apple from a computer company into a provider of digital consumer experiences. He’s had great success in revitalizing the organization—he even made peace with Microsoft (well, partial peace, anyway). Steve has had one success that should be of special interest to business executives and designers—Apple is using outsourcing the “right” way. The company partners and communicates well with original design manufacturers, while co-designing and working closely with its own manufacturing and development teams to ensure its products offer exactly the right kind of user experience. Apple also pays the ODMs for designing to its specifications. As a result, ODMs like Foxconn and Invented have built their prime-market presence by being the willing executor of the Apple product definition. These kinds of partnerships aren’t difficult to manage, but they do require a lot of time spent with the ODM partner, building trusting and getting it right. This kind of investment has paid off handsomely for Apple, as it can for other companies that enjoy bold, visionary leadership.

Each of the leaders you’ve just read about had a grand vision and a unique ability to bring that vision to reality. That said, success is not only a product of inspiration, big dreams, and a charismatic personality – although those must certainly play a role. As we’ve seen here, the best leaders and the most successful companies are also the ones who have the will and the desire to explore the un-known. And they have a deep and ongoing respect for design and its power to drive a strategy of creativity and innovation.

I know from personal experience that all people don’t share that respect. As I described earlier in the book, after I got out of the army, my parents insisted that I learn a “normal” profession, the implication being that anything creative was abnormal. In fact, they quickly dismissed my design project at the officer’s academy and my artistic dreams. Their actual words were “Schlag dir diese Dummheit aus dem Kopf ” or “cut this stupidity out of your head!” I had to defy their advice in order to pursue the future that I knew would bring me closest to the kind of success that mattered most to me in my life. Over forty years later, I’m still grateful for the guidance and leadership of my Army commander and my professor back in engineering school. They not only helped set me on the path toward my life’s work, but they helped me learn the power of considering possibilities you’ve never considered before, and having the courage to pursue them. Those are the lessons—and the responsibilities—of successful leadership, in any business, at any time, and in any part of the world.

Sam is the director of publishing for frog where he oversees frog's global content, editorial, and digital publishing strategy. He is also the editor of design mind, frog's print and online media platform. Sam is the author of numerous books of non fiction and has written for Dwell, Metropolis, GOOD, and other magazines.