Don’t try and be like Steve Jobs.

Don’t learn from his example, don’t try and copy his techniques, don’t internalise his philosophy. I’m not referring here to his famously aggressive, borderline-bullying, management style. If that floats your boat then go for it. No, here I’m specifically talking about his business approach – probably the single most destructive body of knowledge in corporate strategy in the last 20 years.

It’s not that he wasn’t brilliant of course. Far from it, he was singularly brilliant. But that’s problem: singularly. His was not a style that can be replicated, and is in fact the very reverse of what works for most people. As a result we have witnessed an explosion of terrible business thinking in his name – like a herd of gazelles taking survival advice from an elephant, little realising that their characteristics might lend themselves rather better to a different approach.

So what’s the problem?

Well, Steve Jobs was a visionary, and what this means in practice is that he had a clear vision of the future in his head that he wanted to make reality. This meant he had to be highly uncompromising, and make counter-intuitive gambles based on his faith in this vision. The fact that it worked, and he was vindicated, is what makes him such a compelling case study – and is why we’ve been plagued by mini-Steves ever since.

This plague of mini-Steves hasn’t, unfortunately, resulted in a plague of mini-Apples. All this visionary thinking out there isn’t manifesting many visions. And the reason for this is simple: 999 times out of 1,000 your plans don’t survive contact with the enemy – reality. Or as Mike Tyson said “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. Most successful businesses – acting in direct contravention of the visionary hypothesis – end up looking nothing like the idea their founders had in their head on day one. And this is because, simply, an idea thrown into the market will react in unpredictable ways. In the case of Jobs we had the one-in-a-million scenario where reality embraced his ideas without corruption. His hunches were right to a miraculous degree. Now call this genius or call it luck, the point still stands – this is almost always a terrible way to run a business.

The alternative to the visionary approach is the humble, adaptive approach. The approach of listening to your company rather than leading it. You have your idea, you throw it into the market, and rather than commanding it, you watch to see how it responds. Only then, through an insightful reading of the dynamics can you figure out what your businesses really is for, and thus start thinking in a visionary manner.

The classic example of this, referenced on these pages before, is that of Mark Zuckerberg. Zuckerberg is in no way a visionary – in fact he’s the opposite of it, but that makes him a much better role model for business leaders. When he created Facebook, his idea was for it simply to be a “hot-or-not” platform to grade the relative attractiveness of Harvard classmates. Had he been a visionary, he would have doubled-down on this, insisting that he was going to create the grandest hot-or-not site the world had ever seen. But he didn’t do that. Instead he listened. He let his idea forge its own path, and he followed. Eventually, after a few years of listening and learning, it became clear to him what Facebook was, and what the world wanted it to be. At that point he could start playing the visionary game (“connecting the world”), confident that his vision was compatible with reality.

Too many founders have a rigid conception of what their business is on day one, reasoning that if such single-mindedness worked for Steve Jobs it will work for them too. But in truth it won’t. It’s the impossibility of such an ahead-of-the-business strategy that makes his legend so fascinating.

If you want to be visionary and meaningful, and run a business with laser-like focus, that’s great. It should absolutely be the goal. But you just have to let it go through its adolescence first. Holding too tightly to your idea in the early stages is like deciding someone’s career when they’re a baby. Instead relax, hold the tiller gently, and let the vision reveal itself to you.

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