Jul 5, 2017
A guy who used to do PR for Apple reveals what Steve Jobs taught him about leadership
Cameron Craig is a communications professional with 20+ years experience working with Apple, Visa, PayPal, and other brands. Formerly, he was a tour publicist for Johnny Cash.
It was September 2003 in Paris, France. Steve Jobs was moments away from delivering his keynote at the annual Apple Expo gathering of media and Mac faithful.
I was on Apple's PR team, working the photographer and broadcast pit at the Palais des Congrès. As was customary, music was blaring to pump up the crowd.
Like everything else at an Apple keynote, Steve vetted the music himself.
After a bunch of upbeat overly-caffeinated tunes, something remarkable and unique came through the speakers: "I went out there in search of experience / to taste and to touch / and to feel as much / as a man can / before he repents." It was the unmistakable voice of Johnny Cash, backed by U2. The song was written by Bono and appeared as the final track of their 1993 Zooropa album featuring the band at their experimental best.
It was Steve's way of paying tribute to the Man in Black who had passed away just days earlier. The news of Johnny Cash's passing was particularly significant for me. Early in my career, I'd worked as his tour publicist in Australia.
I'd been able to hold it together in the days after his death only by avoiding media reports. I wanted to keep focused on work, but at that moment, I lost it. Tears welled up and I had to step away.
You might be surprised to hear that Steve had a deep respect for Johnny Cash. Steve hardly had a reputation for being a big country fan, preferring Dylan, The Beatles and The Grateful Dead.
You might also think Johnny Cash and Steve Jobs were polar opposites in their approach to business, politics, religions, and life. The truth is they shared a lot in common as leaders who each in their own way changed the world for the better.
Here are three leadership lessons I learned from both of them.
1. Be a good storyteller
They were both master storytellers.
In Johnny Cash's stories, the underdog was often the hero — prisoners, Native Americans or misunderstood youth. He gave the oppressed or underserved a voice and magically reached popular audiences doing it.
Steve Jobs stood up for the "mere mortal" who was underserved by technology that was too complicated to use.
Time after time in Apple product introductions Steve first brought out the problem or villain — which was always complexity — followed by the solution: Apple's latest hardware or software. And Apple's solution didn't just improve things, it "revolutionized" the way things got done and changed the world in the process.
Good leaders make finding their own unique story a priority. They ask themselves how the existence of their company or service makes the world a better place.
For example, Tesla is not a car company, it's about saving energy. Uber is not a car service, it's a technology company. As Howard Schultz, Founder of Starbucks once said, "We are not in the coffee business serving people, but in the people business serving coffee."
At the heart of any compelling story is some vulnerability. When a leader reveals truth from a place of vulnerability we listen more intently and start to see ourselves in the story. Steve Jobs and Johnny Cash both used this technique and will be remembered as very authentic, human leaders.
Did something deeply personal in your life inspire you to do what you do? What would you tell an 8-year-old about why what you do is important? Tap into your vulnerability and use it to inspire others.
2. Keep it simple
Johnny Cash's songs were simple, sparse three-chord tunes. When he started in the 1950s with his band The Tennessee Two, they didn't even have a drummer.
To make up for it, his guitar player Luther Perkins came up with the famous percussive "boom-chicka-boom" sound. Like the chords, that sound was simple too, yet it had depth.
Apple's product designs are likewise deceptively simple. But there's a lot that goes on under the hood to make them special. They make the right bets on what not to put in a product as well as coming up with incredible features no one has even thought of yet.
Whether its design of a product or design of a song, simplicity was key to both leaders.
Organizations gravitate to complexity by creating processes, hierarchical structures and over analyzing data. Good leaders simplify and their teams love them because of it. They have a well articulated why and repeat it often.
They are rigorous about their teams and resources doing less, not more. Great leaders provide clarity, even in times of chaos.
They also do some things that not even complex data or analysis can do — they inspire with simple words and actions.
3. Learn from failure
In 1986, Cash was dropped by Columbia Records, after a 26 year partnership. He contributed to a lot of Columbia's success and then they dropped him. As singer/actor Dwight Yoakam famously said, Johnny Cash "built the building" — referring to Columbia's executive offices in Nashville.
In 1985, Jobs was "very publicly" fired from Apple. What had been the focus of his life was gone, he recalled during at Stanford University commencement address years later.
But neither man stayed down.
Cash worked with rap and heavy metal producer Rick Rubin to release some of the most important and inspiring work of his career with the "American Recordings" series, attracting a whole legion of new fans.
Jobs came back to Apple eventually and refocused the company by going back to its roots and creating a breakthrough consumer PC for the internet age: the iMac — the first of many hits to come.
Everyone fails at one point or another. Good leaders use it to their advantage. They confront their failure and learn from it. Like Cash or Jobs, they use it to reinvent.
Almost counterintuitively, they have more wisdom now to make decisions. They've seen first-hand how certain choices lead to undesirable outcomes. They can now draw from this experience to trust their gut while navigating new possibilities. The failure process has led them to become more entrepreneurial and consequently see far more potential opportunity. The next time things don't go as you plan, think of Cash and Jobs and how they were even more successful their second time around.
So there you have it: two great leaders who taught me a lot about leadership and life, and how you can learn from them too.
Oh yeah, one more thing they had in common — they both wore black.
by Cameron Craig