Let's talk about Steve Jobs and leadership

Nearly a decade after his death, Jobs remains one of the most fascinating and iconic business leaders of the past century--and perhaps in all of history.

Recently, I asked readers of my daily newsletter to share stories about the best and worst bosses they'd ever had. A reader named Philippe Bouissou had an unusual experience to share: working for Jobs on an intense project in the late 1990s. 

It was "very hard," Bouissou told me when we talked afterward. "Steve, like Napoleon, had two faces. On one side he was a brilliant genius and a true misfit. And the other side, his lack of care and sensitivity for people, his disrespect and dictatorial behavior, were all real."

Here's the context, plus what it was like to work for Jobs, and how Bouissou learned firsthand the unique way that Jobs could inspire and motivate employees.

"A brilliant genius and a true misfit"

Bouissou started at Apple in 1995, while Jobs was in exile, running NeXT. As ​he tells the story, he was an early advocate of e-commerce, and he wanted Apple to try selling its products directly to consumers.

The idea fell flat when he pitched it to Apple's leadership. (In fairness, this was in the very early days of the consumer internet, when people could hardly imagine inputting a credit card number online.)

But then Apple bought NeXT, and when Jobs became CEO, he enthusiastically embraced the idea. As a result, Bouissou got his crash course in leadership, Steve Jobs-style.

Here's what he said he learned from the experience:

1. To succeed, focus relentlessly on one or two things.

If you read no further, the most important thing Bouissou learned from Jobs about leading people was the importance of always focusing on the right priorities. 

"The first lesson was like, don't [just] focus but hyperfocus," he told me. "Think what really matters the most ... I think Steve had this unique ability, which I've never seen in anybody else. He exhibited an intense and obsessive focus."

Working on his e-commerce project, Bouissou said, the focus became largely about the user experience and the flow--all of which were new and relatively untried elsewhere at the time.

2. Go to the person who can make a difference.

Bouissou technically had a boss between Jobs and himself, but he said Jobs didn't seem to care about the organizational chart. He'd go around the bureaucracy constantly.

"Steve's way of managing people [was] that he basically goes over the boss and goes directly to you," Bouissou said. "So I had a number of interactions about the design of the online store, the user interface, the front end, and navigation. He was very involved and very picky and very on top of things."

I'm reminded here of a similar story I wrote last year, from when Jobs decided at the last minute in 2007 that he wanted real glass, not a plastic screen, on the iPhone. He got it done by skipping over all the development and sourcing specialists, and going directly to the CEO of Gorilla Glass.

3.    Refine, refine, and refine again.

Having studied Jobs quite a bit, I found it interesting the degree to which Bouissou almost started to sound a bit like him as our interview went on. 

This became most apparent when he talked about iteration and refining, so you can identify the one or two most important things to focus on. You do that, he says, on the basis of his time with Jobs, by trying big things and then stripping out the parts that turn out to be unimportant.

"Simplicity is hard," he said. "I think it takes many, many iterations to peel something to its core, to its most simple and most eloquent form of expression -- and really to its truth."

4.    Don't just make products. Instead, "manufacture delight."

This is my favorite insight. It's about the ultimate reason for all that dedication to simplicity and focus. It should theoretically apply to just about any business.

"This is something I derived from working with Steve; it wasn't something that I've ever heard him say," Bouissou said. "But, if you think about it, what is the difference between Caterpillar, Farmers, Ford Motor Company, Krispy Kreme, or Pixar Animation Studios? All five companies are in the exact same business with the exact same goal and purpose, which is to manufacture and deliver delight."

With Jobs, he said, manufacturing delight was partially a matter of reacting to products and ideas with all five senses: How would they sound? How would they feel? Even, how would they smell?

"A remarkable man"

The e-commerce project was a success, but Bouissou told me working for Jobs took a significant toll.

"You either stay married with me, or you marry Steve," his wife told him at once point. "I'm not going to go on like this."

By 1998, he'd moved on, but he found himself thinking about the experience.

Then, when Jobs died in 2011, he said, he went by the former CEO's house in Palo Alto, California, where he marveled at the array of "hundreds of artifacts and drawings and apples and poems and things" that people had left as a memorial.

"He was a remarkable man," Bouissou said. "He was an exceptional man. I never met anybody like him."