Steve Jobs – Lessons in Innovation


As part of my EDL 271 class at Drake University, I was asked to read an autobiography or biography of a prominent leader outside the field of education and prepare a short bulleted summary focusing on the person’s leadership style, highlighting key indicators of their success and ties to select Iowa Administrative Standards.

I chose Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs as my school district has established a central focus area around the concept of innovation. As a result, I wanted to learn more about what it takes to be an innovative change agent and, in my opinion, there is no more clear exemplar of innovative leadership than Steve Jobs.

Below are what I believe were some of the more pertinent and relevant qualities of innovative leadership and how I believe they align to the Iowa Administrative Standards. As you read over this, please keep in mind that this is only a short summary assignment. Perhaps the value in this blog is just to read his words and create your own meaning from them.




APA Citation for Book Read:

Isaacson, W. (2011). Steve Jobs. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Abstract/Key Words:

Based on more than 40 interviews over 2 years, as well as interviews with over 100 family members, friends, adversaries, competitors, and colleagues, author Walter Isaacson tells the story of Steve Jobs, a founder of Apple Computer Company. The book provides many insights about the qualities that enabled Steve Jobs to be a pioneer in innovation, imagination, and creativity.

Key Words: innovation, reality distortion, creativity, inventiveness

Summary of the book:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

-Apple’s “Think Different” commercial, 1997 (p. 329)

Steve Jobs is well known as a founder of the Apple Computer Company and a leader of Pixar Animation. Highly regarded as a once-in-a-generation creative genius, his drive, imagination, and “reality distortion field” led to many of the greatest innovations in the world of personal computing and technology integration our generation has seen over the last 30 years.

Throughout his career, he consistently pushed the envelope of what was possible to imagine and create products that people never knew that they needed, but now could not live without. He steadfastly adhered to the principle that design should drive engineering and not vice-versa. With every product he created, he demanded the highest standard of quality, paying close attention to the smallest of details of the product’s design, including parts unseen by the consumer.

It was this attention to detail that also allowed him to simplify his products. By closely examining all parts of the design, he could find areas to minimize or eliminate parts and features that were redundant, unnecessary, or overly complicated. Through this concept of elegant simplicity, his products became more intuitive and inviting for all consumers.

As the pace of change and progress in education is notoriously slow, school leaders could learn a great deal from the life and leadership philosophies of Steve Jobs to become much more innovative educational change agents.

STANDARD 1: A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by facilitating the development, articulation, implementation and stewardship of a vision of learning that is shared and supported by the school community.

  • Effective leaders must be willing to challenge assumptions and beliefs.
    • “Steve has a reality distortion field. In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It was dangerous to get caught in his distortion field, but it was what led him to actually be able to change reality.” (p.117-118)
    • “The more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you, the harder it is to be an artist, which is why a lot of times, artists have to say, ‘Bye. I have to go. I’m going crazy and I’m getting out of here.’ And they go and hibernate somewhere. Maybe later they re-emerge a little differently.” (p. 190)
  • Effective Leaders establish, maintain, and hold firm to their core beliefs.
    • Intuition is an undervalued aspect to effective leadership.
      • “The people of India don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.” (p. 48)
    • Simplicity is the key to innovation.
      • “Why do we assume that simple is good? Because with physical products, we feel we have to dominate them. As you bring order to complexity, you find a way to make the product defer to you. Simplicity isn’t just a visual style, It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to get rid of the parts that are not essential.” (p. 343)
    • Effective leaders have a clear vision that shapes their work. They know what they will do and have decided what they will NOT do.
      • “One of Job’s greatest strengths was knowing how to focus. ‘Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,’ he said. ‘That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.” (p. 336)
      • “By shutting it down, I freed up some good engineers who could work on new mobile devices. And eventually we got it right when we moved on to iPhones and the iPad.” (p. 339)

STANDARD 2: A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by advocating, nurturing and sustaining a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional development

  • Take responsibility for your entire system and know how it works.
  • Stay hungry. Be uncomfortable with being comfortable.
  • Echoing Jim Collins: We need to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus.
    • “But I realized that A players like to work with A players, they just didn’t like working with C players. When I worked at Pixar, it was a whole company of A players. When I got back to Apple, that what I decided to try to do. You need to have a collaborative hiring process. When we hire someone, even if they are going to be in marketing, I will have them talk to the design folks and the engineers.” (p. 363)
  • It is important for leaders to recognize how adults learn and how to push their learning forward.
    • “Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them.” (p. 189)

STANDARD 6: A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by understanding, responding to, and influencing the larger political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context.

  • When you are behind, leapfrog your competition.
  • Focus on the details, but make sure you can still see the forest and not just the trees.
  • Seek to change the world. You just may do so.
  • It is important for leaders to keep their life and role in society in the proper perspective.
    • “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in my life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” (p. 457)
    • “I’m one of the few people who understands how producing technology requires intuition and creativity, and how producing something artistic takes real discipline.” (p. 397)
    • “If you don’t love something, you’re not going to go the extra mile, work the extra weekend, challenge the status quo as much.” (p. 407)


How does all of this connect to school leadership? Perhaps that can be seen most clearly from the quote below. As you read it, substitute the word “students” for “products” and “everything else” for the word “profits.”

“My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything: the people you hire, who gets promoted, and what you discuss in meetings. (p. 567)

As the pace of change and progress in education is notoriously slow, school leaders could learn a great deal from the life and leadership philosophies of Steve Jobs to become much more innovative educational change agents.

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