Attention to Detail – Leadership lessons from Steve Jobs

I’ve just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s fascinating book about Steve Jobs – the ‘mercurial’ (Job’s own preferred description of himself) – founder and late CEO of Apple.

Jobs was a very unique individual and I think we run some risk if we try to generalise his leadership abilities as a guide for others to emulate. Nonetheless, the recurring theme that kept coming back to me throughout the book was his unbelievable attention to detail. Examples such as:

  1. Making sure the inside of a Mac was as well designed and appealing as the outside – despite the fact that no one would ever see it;
  2. None of the 2000 shades of beige he was shown was good enough for the Apple II;
  3. The floors in Apple stores had to come from a quarry outside Florence;
  4. He insisted that the graphics package on the Mac was able to draw rectangles with rounded corners when no one else thought it was necessary;
  5. When he lay in bed dying from cancer he asked for five different oxygen masks so that he could choose the one with the best design.

His behaviour towards his employees was nothing short of intolerable yet his passion to ensure that things were perfect drove the company to become one of the world’s most profitable businesses in the world.

‘Attention to detail’ is a characteristic within the Ceannas Leadership Index and yet it often scores significantly lower amongst senior executive leaders than other characteristics.

The interesting thing about Jobs’ behaviour was that it had a very strong operational focus – i.e. how things were done, whereas other versions of attention to detail is to do with monitoring data and information in order to gain a strategic perspective on how the organisation is performing.

The reason often given is the belief that it is the role of the leader to maintain a high-level big picture view of the world.

I’d contrast the two ends of the attention to detail continuum as being qualitative and quantitative. Jobs was very much towards the qualitative end (how things were done) compared to the quantitative end (the outputs/outcomes from how things were done).

As ever, there’s a balance to be struck. Kaiser and Overfield 2011  describe how leaders can suffer from what they describe to be ‘lop sided leadership’ – where a strength can become just ‘too much of a good thing’. Even Aristotle identified a similar theme when he recognised that human ineffectiveness can be characterised by deficiency (too little of the prized quality) – or by excess (too much of the prized quality).

The current financial challenges facing most organisations lead many leaders to see their attention to detail to be very much at the scrutiny end of the quantitative side of this continuum. This is characterised by endless management meetings where data is presented for scrutiny and challenge.

Contrast this with Jobs’ meetings which maybe went on for as long – or even longer – but where the focus was on how things were designed, how it performed and how it was constructed.

Jobs was a ‘deep diver’ who intruded in operational detail and who used his passion for perfection to impact the entire company. As previously noted I think Jobs was such a unique individual that he is not a model for others to follow. Nevertheless there are elements of his behaviour that are worthy of imitation.

Yet I often find Chief Executives who almost wear their disinterest in detail as a ‘badge of honour’ such is the supremacy of strategic big picture thinking.

However, I have observed the impact when a leader makes conscious decision to shift towards a more operational attention to detail – not from the point of view of scrutiny and distrust – but to demonstrate their interest in ‘how we do things’ and valuing everyone who does even the simplest task.

By showing that the detail of how we interact with customers, manufacturing quality, engagement with colleagues or leadership behaviour really matters to the organisation creates powerful and positive waves throughout the organisation.

As with everything it’s about achieving a balance. Too much attention to the wrong details can create an environment of distrust, over-control and despondency.

So, returning to the example of Steve Jobs I do think there is a lesson for all leaders, regardless of their natural preferences, and that is to show that you have a passion for getting things right at every level in the organisation about how we do things.

The essential difference between Jobs and us normal human beings is that we need to give permission for others to focus on that detail and create the practice that matches our passion for getting things right – as opposed to telling them how to do things!