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Want to Be Like Steve Jobs and Put a Dent in the Universe? Kick Your Ego Out First. Here's How.

Innovators are often seen as egotists, but the best ones are the furthest from it.


We all want to be liked. Right?

No, not if your purpose extends beyond your own ego.

In the final chapter of Becoming Steve Jobs, the authors share a time when Jobs had to cancel a meeting due to the illness that eventually took his life. But he couldn't say that because he hadn't yet publicly disclosed how sick he was. So, instead he said: "Tell them I'm being an a--hole. That's what they'll probably be thinking anyway, so why not just say it."

While that may sound egotistical, it actually shows self-awareness, or what pop culture would call being "woke."

Yes, Jobs had a reputation for being crass and unfeeling, but he certainly appeared to make up for it with his creative vision and ability to innovate.

Working with hundreds of innovators over the years, I've found a deep commitment to a vision--coupled with a lack of concern about what others think of you--makes for the most effective innovators and leaders. Why? If you're always concerned about what others think, you'll throttle back disruptive innovation to avoid upsetting people. You'll feed your ego at the cost of your ideas.

Am I saying you need to be a jerk to innovate? No. But great innovators are far less concerned with how they are perceived than they are with their own vision. They have little need for validation or patronage. It isn't about them, and it's not about you, it's about staying true to a vision.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak once told me that Jobs had a habit of popping into meetings at Apple, listening, looking, taking a quick inventory of what was being discussed, and then saying something like: "This isn't good enough." 

There was no sugarcoating with Jobs. He called it like he saw it, no matter what people thought. He wasn't operating from his ego but from his vision. Jony Ive, Apple's former chief design officer, put it this way, ""The reason you sugarcoat things is that you don't want anyone to think you're an a--hole. So that's vanity." That's something worth contemplating if you're constantly struggling with being liked while trying to lead, especially if it involves leading disruptive innovation.

Keeping your ego in check.

While changing a behavior driven by ego may be one of the hardest things to do, there are a few ways you can keep ego in check. Start by asking yourself these questions:

  1. When you feel cornered in business, do you take it personally? Does the instinct to quickly defend yourself kick in?
  2. Are you putting off delivering information that is critical to the business because you know it's not likely to be received well--and fear it may damage the way you are perceived? 
  3. Do your colleagues' actions or words cause you to feel overly anxious or uncertain about a decision that you are or were otherwise certain of?
  4. Are you trying to placate or appease someone in order to avoid hurting their feelings?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you're likely making decisions based on ego and need to step back and disengage from the situation or conversation until you've had time to think through what's driving you. Are you upset because an idea, information, or a decision is being attacked? Or, do you feel you are the one being attacked and risk being less likable? If it's the latter, your ego is in driver's seat, not your vision.

Of course, it's possible to be thoughtful, while also being honest. But innovation, the sort that shapes market, industries, and societies, isn't about gently nudging the past into the future. Great change is always accompanied by great pain and resistance as we simultaneously let go of the familiar and struggle to navigate what's new and uncertain.

If you're going to lead people in creating that sort of change--the kind that as Job's said, "puts a dent in the universe," you have to muster up the courage to be unabashedly authentic and direct with your team. Anything less only serves to feed the ego--yours or theirs.