Now that Steve Jobs is finally stepping down as CEO of Apple, the encomiums are flowing faster than 4G: Creative genius. Business titan. Marketing maestro. Visionary. He surely is those things.
But Jobs transformed consumer electronics and the whole business of technology thanks to another vital trait that is often overlooked: resilience. Bouncing back from defeat transformed Jobs from a one-hit wonder into a world-class innovator and helped him gain the insights that made the iPod, iPhone, and iPad iconic and ubiquitous. In challenging times such as these, that quality of resilience is often the thing that distinguishes the winners from the also-rans.
Jobs began his illustrious career, of course, by co-founding Apple in 1976 with Steve Wozniak. While brilliant, the young Jobs was also cantankerous and arrogant, and as Apple grew from a garage startup into a billion-dollar public company, Jobs's ego grew along with it. By 1985, Jobs lost an internal battle over the company's direction and left in what was half a firing and half a resignation. The Apple board elevated the less mercurial and more experienced John Sculley to CEO, figuring he'd be able to transform Apple from a quirky young firm into a powerhouse able to compete with IBM.
After 12 years in exile, Jobs made a triumphant return to Apple, which had gone from wunderkind to endangered species. Apple lost its way in the 1990s thanks to product flubs, botched orders, muddied vision, and dysfunctional management. Sculley left in 1993, to be followed by a succession of unsuccessful CEOs. The company's stock fell from $17 in 1991 to less than $4 by mid-1997--the year it lost $1 billion. For Apple, bringing back Jobs was a daring bet that its future would be as bright as its past.
But Jobs didn't return as an I-told-you-so braggart. That 12-year span between Apple paychecks was as rough on Jobs as it was on Apple, and he returned somewhat humbled. In a famous speech at Stanford University in 2005, Jobs indulged in a rare bit of public introspection as he recounted the comedown—and then the unexpected uplift—that came from departing Apple in 1985. "What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone," he said. "It was devastating. I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life."
The conventional wisdom is that Apple erred badly and never should have let Jobs leave in the first place. But journalist and business professor Randall Stross has argued that Jobs never would have become the leader he grew into if not for the trials he endured after leaving Apple. Jobs used some of the millions he earned from Apple's 1980 public offering to start another computer company, called NeXT, with a mission to provide powerful mainframe-like PCs to students and academics. Jobs ran the company like an obsessive dictator, making virtually every decision himself, and a lot went wrong. The computers were vastly overpriced and sales were weak. Jobs's autocratic style caused rapid turnover among the executive ranks. When NeXT failed to succeed by selling hardware it turned to software, but that didn't fly either. Apple bough NeXT in 1996 to gain access to elements of the company's software that ultimately became an operating system for Macintosh computers--but it was also a pretext for bringing the prodigal son back to Apple.
The company desperately needed help by then, but it didn't need the Steve Jobs of 1985. It needed a seasoned professional able to look around the bend, leap ahead of the competition and manage the confusion and complexity that came with trying to innovate amidst a technology gold rush. Luckily for Apple, that's just who Jobs had become. "The Steve Jobs who returned to Apple was a much more capable leader," Stross wrote in the New York Times in 2010. "It took 12 dispiriting years, much bruising, and perspective gained from exile." Jobs had learned, for instance, to cultivate talented engineers and salespeople, instead of flinging them to the curb when they disagreed with his vision or he simply grew impatient. He also learned, grudgingly, to delegate work instead of doing everything himself.
Perhaps most important, Jobs learned to change his own fixed mindset about computing. At NeXT, Jobs was basically trying to recreate the Macintosh, albeit a souped-up and more expensive version. But when that didn't work, Jobs began to realize that the future of computing wouldn't necessarily look like the past. It might not be focused on square boxes sitting on a desk. Instead, it might migrate to other devices, perhaps ones small enough to carry around in a briefcase or suit pocket.
Failing at NeXT helped Jobs succeed during his second bite at Apple. Stross says that Jobs gained insights from what didn't work at NeXT that allowed Apple, under his command, to reinvent the digital music player, the cell phone, the tablet computer, and the many lucrative services, like iTunes, that come with selling so much hardware. Apple wasn't the first to invent any of those devices. But it revolutionized the way people use them and found new ways to delight consumers in the process. And while selling millions of iPods, iPhones, and iPads, Apple continued to make some pretty nifty computers, too. All of that helped Apple survive the recent recession almost completely unscathed, and become the world's most valuable technology company.
Business leaders often tout their comebacks or second acts. But these are often scripted corporate narratives meant to gloss over some embarrassing mistake or make incompetence seem ennobling. In a book I'm writing that will be published next spring, called Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success, I've identified many of the attributes that distinguish real comebacks from phony ones. One of those attributes is the ability to discard old thinking when it no longer works, which is much harder than it might seem—especially if that thinking helped make you fabulously successful in the past. Another is the equipoise it takes to accept failure so you can learn from it, instead of blaming other people or making excuses for what went wrong. Characteristics such as those are the building blocks of resilience, which allows people to overcome setbacks, get smarter and reach new levels of success.
There are a lot of successful business leaders, and also many Icaruses who fly high for awhile but then screw up, go bust, get fired, or skulk into obscurity. The list of those who soar after failure, however, is much smaller. Steve Jobs is a billionaire inventor, a technology legend, and a business pioneer on a par with greats like Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford. He's also a guy who succeeded at a young age, got cocky about it, paid a price for his arrogance and then came back a lot smarter and more capable than before. His genius is enviable. But his resilience is something the rest of us can replicate.