Six Things Social Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs
Picture credit: Ben Stanfield

Though I wrote most of my college papers on a Mac, I haven't been an avid consumer of Apple products. Yet last night I found myself riveted to the computer, reading the passion pour forth from so many that have been touched by Steve Jobs. Perhaps the reason I found it so compelling was that before hearing the news of Jobs' death, I'd been driving home listening to On Point Radio featuring Tom Friedman talking about the big issues we face: the education challenges posed by a flat world (Jobs probably had a hand in the flattening!), our mounting debt and climate change. I saw a link between our big social issues and Jobs' passing, and Tweeted, "RIP Steve Jobs. May we way take some inspiration from your creative, bold leadership to the work of mending our fractured civic life."

This morning I'd like to translate that general sense those of us working in the civic space ought to take some inspiration from Jobs into six lessons social entrepreneurs can learn from him:

Embrace Failure: Jobs was the poster child for the popular tech concept that a key to innovation is to "fail faster" in order to learn from mistakes. Yet philanthropic institutions tend to be particularly risk averse, shunning the possibility of "wasting money" and instead focusing on safe bets. If we truly want innovative solutions to social problems, we need to realize some efforts will fail. When they do, we should learn from the mistakes and follow Jobs' advice: "Admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations.”

Discern Nascent Needs People didn't clamor for iPhones or iPads; Jobs looked into the future and designed products people would clamor for--and would now say they definitely need. In these tumultuous times, social entrepreneurs need to understand those we serve, but look to the future for new solutions others have yet to conceive.

Ignite Passions: It's amazing to witness the loyalty and passion of Apple customers. How many other corporate headquarters have customers pile flowers by the entrance when the CEO passes away? Jobs was able to spark people's passion with his idealism and by enabling their creativity. We social entrepreneurs should have idealism covered, but so often nonprofit work takes on a somber tone. Yes, Apple can make lives better through their products, but the core business of a nonprofit is making lives better--so we should be able to kindle the same kind of passion and loyalty to our social causes.

Demand Quality: Jobs' ability to generate passion flowed directly from his dogged focus on quality. After he stepped down as CEO, I recall hearing many stories from Apple engineers about fearing that weekend call from Steve, knowing that if things weren't exactly the way he wanted they would be spending the weekend fixing it. Jobs explains "My job is to not be easy on people. My job is to make them better." We need to apply the same rigor to the quality of our programs, and maintain the highest standards for our social sector organizations.

Compete & Collaborate: We wouldn't have the "Occupy Wall St." movement going on now if competition among businesses always led to the public good. Yet in the tech sector, we do see classical economic theory playing out, whereby competition among rivals leads to innovation and consumer choice--witness the Facebook changes following shortly upon the launch of Google+, for instance. And no one has stirred the competitive pot of innovation like Jobs. Yet despite the intense competition in the sector, in the wake of his death, one can see the respect leaders of rival companies have for Jobs. One senses that the tech leaders see that competition stimulates overall quality and raises the bar for the sector as a whole. Those of us tackling social problems need to push each other to do better in a spirit of friendly competition. At the same time, we share the same ultimate goals of a better society and need to collaborate and share ideas to advance our common aims.

Step Up Our Game: It's natural to ask after the passing of such a charismatic leader, "Who will be the next Steve Jobs?". Of course, no one can be Steve Jobs. What we each can do is take inspiration from his life, and step our own game. The problems of the day call for many more to lead creatively and inspire innovation. The challenge is two-fold for social entrepreneurs: consider how we can be better leaders ourselves, but also work toward a society of truly equal opportunity, where the future budding inventors and leaders are nurtured and given a chance to flourish, regardless of where they might live, their household income, or the color of their skin. Surely that is a goal worthy of the same level of passion Steve Jobs displayed for delighting the world with his inventions. And if we social entrepreneurs can stretch ourselves just a bit more with this in mind, we would truly honor the legacy of the great leader we just lost.

Those are my quick thoughts on what can learn from Steve Jobs. I'd welcome your thoughts on how Jobs inspired you. May he rest in peace knowing he has inspired many across the world to do great work.


Taking inspiration from Steve

Taking inspiration from Steve Jobs for a social enterprise sounds almost like a contradiction in terms. His demand for quality resulted in bullying his employees by several accounts and even worse, apparently he was responsible for exploiting chinese workers. A social enterprise will always have to compromise market success for social good which is as it should be.

Lessons from Steve Jobs

Clearly there are some negatives associated with Steve Jobs, and any leader, for that matter. I too have heard he could be tough to work for given his demands to have things done his way. I still say his dogged pursuit of quality is something we can learn from as social entrepreneurs; but do hope we can do so while treating people well. I believe it's good to study leaders who achieve success to determine what useful things we might learn; that doesn't imply we embrace or endorse everything about them.