Archive for the ‘Profile’ Category


Design vs. Leadership: The Curious Case of Steve Jobs



One of my favorite reads of the last week was this description of working with Steve Jobs. The conclusion hit me with a big “Of course.”

“That is what I remember most about Steve, that he simply loved designing and shipping products. Again, and again, and again. None of the magic that has become Apple would have ever happened if he were simply a CEO. Steve’s magic recipe was that he was a product designer at his core, who was smart enough to know that the best way to design products was to have the magic wand of CEO in one of your hands. He was compelling and powerful and all that, but I think that having once had the reigns of power wrestled away from him, he realized that it was important not to let that happen again, lest he not be allowed to be a Product Manager any more.”

I worked through several hundred pages of Walter Isaacson psychobabble about the source of his impatience and poor treatment of others, and the answer is so much simpler than rage at being adopted or whatnot. Jobs was a designer who became CEO out of necessity and never figured out how to reconcile the tension between them (and maybe never cared to).

Designing and leading are very different modes of action. I say this both from my observations of people who are good at each and from my personal experiences.

Designing benefits from having the shortest distance possible between emotion and action. A good brainstorming session is five people in a room bubbling with new ideas and suggestions for improving others’. It is exciting and incredibly satisfying, though I also find it often frustrating along the way. You have a sense of what good would feel like, and you ain’t there yet. So that frustration drives you, generating new ideas that might get you to good. Stanford’s d. School emphasizes quantity of ideas and speed, and these both come from being very connected to your emotions.

Leadership benefits from having a long distance between emotion and action. As a leader, your every action impacts the people that get things done, and  acting emotionally means acting without really considering whether you are taking into account each individuals’  needs or the team dynamic as a whole. The best leadership I’ve seen has come from a quiet person listening, distilling a room full of drama to two or three key points, and making the unsolvable solvable.

That doesn’t mean that leadership is unemotional. Far from it. Leadership starts with caring about the goal and the people executing it. It continues with the same kind of excitement and frustration at things going well or badly. But I think that emotion always needs to be checked against your understanding, and that takes time.

It sounds like Jobs led as a designer. From “Inside Apple,” it sounds like this extends not just to designing amazing products but to an amazing company as well (their Monday meetings reviewing every product with all execs are genius). And in leading others, it sounds like he often acted too quickly from his emotion, calling someone a “genius” one second and a “bozo” the next–the same kind of swing between excitement and frustration that drives a designer. But in applying this to people, you come across as erratic, demoralizing, unfair. Good thing that he designed a company with so much opportunity for others to do great work that people were willing to suck it up and deal.

This raises an issue: how do you merge the two together and be a good leader of design? Is it a swing between acting emotionally and acting thoughtfully? Is it about understanding the design process but giving up your role in it so that you can focus on getting the most out of others?

My best assessment: I think it’s probably a bit of both–leadership skills and design skills are both tools that you have to have at the ready based on whatever is needed from the situation. As always, the goal is king. But I’d be curious to hear from any leaders of design out there.


Profile in Awesomeness: Film composer Hans Zimmer


I love film scores, especially film scores to action films. Where else do you get exciting, dynamic classical music these days? Hans Zimmer is one of my favorites, especially his Crimson Tide, Thin Red Line, and Gladiator.

Click here for an interview with this excitable, talented, apparently approachable giant. It always makes me happy when people I like live up to the quality of their work.

PS Zimmer is the one on the left in the attached photo.


Profile in Awesomeness: Neil Patrick Harris


2687697337_f04b07745cI am a big fan of Neil Patrick Harris. His witty delivery and controlled slapstick make “How I Met Your Mother.” He can sing and dance. And–I consider this cheating–he starred in Joss Whedon’s “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.” I would become a big fan of an umbrella if it starred in something by Whedon.

In anticipation of his (successful, IMO) Emmy hosting gig, New York magazine recently interviewed Harris for the cover. The story centered on Harris as a huge star whose fame was not affected by coming out. It’s an interesting story, but the one I really found inspiring was the story about his talent.

From the article: “Along with magic, he adores variety shows, Buster Keaton, slapstick and acrobatics, cryptography and treasure hunts [….] This is the stuff that most attracts him, he tells me–anything stylized, abstract, requiring skills and practice [….] He discusses his own performances this way, too, as a technical achievement. ‘For me, I’ve always had a desire to know how things were done. How things worked.'” Amen.

I feel lucky to be alive at a time when I have decades to anticipate what Neil Patrick Harris does next. Click here for the article.


Hail the Fallen Hero: Norman Borlaug, God of Agriculture


Unfortunately, sometimes you find out about great people only through their obituaries.


Norman Borlaug was an agricultural scientist concerned with the problem of a growing population. The problem, dating back to Malthus to my knowledge, is that a growing population should eventually use up its resources. If there is a limited amount of farmable land, for example, then a growing population would logically use up that land and eventually need more food per year than can actually be created on that farmable land.

The solution, of course, is human ingenuity.

My favorite story in the obituary (click here: ) is Borlaug swooping into a starving Mexico of 1944. By 1948, Borlaug had doubled that capacity. A few years later he multiplied the capacity by another factor of five. Shortly after, researchers in another starving country, India, applied his work to rice and greatly improved food production there as well. Because of these advances, Borlaug is commonly known as the father of the Green Revolution (not to be confused with environmentalism, which Borlaug opposed). All together, Borlaug is estimated to have saved one billion lives.

If you want an example of the awe-inspiring power of science to improve lives, this is it.


Hail the Fallen Hero: Stanley Kaplan Dies at 90


I used to tutor children for a number of subjects, including the SATs and GREs. Some of my favorite materials at the time were from Kaplan. I just found them effective and efficient: Kaplan materials are clearly organized to directly target the skills required for standardized tests. They focus on principles and reptition, guiding the student in how to learn. I know several people–myself included–who still credit Kaplan and similar programs for the size of their vocabulary.

What strikes me about this profile is that Stanley Kaplan claims to have been motivated by a real passion for the value of standardized tests. Kaplan felt he was denied medical school not for his intelligence but rather for his lower-class education, ethnicity, and lack of connections. Standardized tests would have allowed him to show his ability despite the approach he took to getting there. That’s interesting  for two reasons. First, that Kaplan was a true self-made man. Skaplanecond, it’s another example of an important truth: you just can’t get the kind of enormous success that Kaplan achieved without the passion of being on a crusade.


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