Late Apple chief provided lesson in leadership

Steve Jobs died 10 years ago today. To the degree Jobs was enigmatic, his mark on the world is tangible. Apple’s last big thing under Jobs — the iPhone — really did change everything, including for government. Like the Ford Model T, the iPhone wasn’t the first of its species, but it was so radically different from its antecedents that you can draw a line between before and after.

World beating products are often the result of a single person’s unique drive, even though it may take large numbers of people to bring them to reality. In the case of the iPhone, or the Model T, we know the person’s name.

I had a couple of smart phones before my first iPhone, but it didn’t take long to realize the relative primitiveness of those Treos, Palms and the like. You could argue that a service like Google search has been revolutionary. It has, but the iPhone let people take complete computing everywhere and at all times.

The app idea got mobile computing away from use of poorly-performing pocket or mobile browsers. It forced companies and, eventually, government agencies to deploy fully functional mobile apps. Having used typewriters in my first three professional jobs, I still marvel that people can, say, plan an entire vacation or sign up for Social Security from a phone.

As a user group, federal employees were a little slower to adopt the iPhone. Many preferred the rugged and, at the time, more secure Blackberries. Jobs made fun of those “plastic buttons” covering mid 2000s-era smart phones. But many users found the physical keyboards a lot easier to use than the software keyboard of the iPhone. To this day the soft keyboard can confound and compound the frustrations of auto-correct.

I have had Mac computers for many years, after literally throwing out a 486-equipped metal box PC out onto my paved driveway because of how corrupted the OS became from adware, spyware, and whatever detritus seemed to render Windows PCs unusable after a couple of years. My Macs have never exhibited that degradation over time. I get a good seven years out of one.

On the other hand, I’m no Apple fan boy. iPhones in particular are filled with bugs and annoying quirks. No software is totally intuitive or free of flaws. Apple is also hardware. I’ve had graphics units fail, Ethernet ports disable themselves, hard drives poop out. Then there’s the unforgivable deletion of the 3.5mm headphone jack. The endless changing of ports, the chintzy non-inclusion of charger blocks for thousand-dollar iPhones —chargers that probably cost Apple 13 cents apiece from China.

When Jobs died, of course it was sad to hear of a remarkable person passing while still relatively young. But it wasn’t something I felt personal grief about. But I did ponder one other thing about Jobs besides the various products. And that is how he could hold the vast bureaucracy of a very large company to the values and practices that result in such products. Jobs was famously forced out in 1985, then returned 12 years later to succeed a series of hapless CEOS, including John Scully, who led the company to the brink of bankruptcy. But by 2011 Apple’s revenues exceeded $100 billion, and yet it continues to innovate.

Large organizations can stumble and fail, and they can stumble and come back to success. Jobs showed that leadership can make a difference.

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