Lesson From Steve Jobs: The Power of Inspiration

Art inspires. Humor inspires. Teamwork inspires. A greater purpose inspires. What are you doing to inspire your IT staff?

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Tue, November 01, 2011

CIO

"In the last year of his life, he studies a book of paintings by Mark Rothko, an artist he hadn't known about before, thinking of what could inspire people on the walls of a future Apple campus." -Mona Simpson, A Sister's Eulogy for Steve Jobs

Most people probably recall the last words of Steve Jobs—"oh wow, oh wow, oh wow"—as revealed in his sister Mona Simpson's moving eulogy published in the New York Times this week. The words have sparked a debate over what Jobs may have meant.

But there's another piece of the eulogy (hint: read the quote above) that turns the microscope inward and asks something of the reader, specifically CIOs. Even as Jobs embodied the spirit of innovation that inspired countless Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, he constantly looked for new ways to inspire his own staff.

Inspiration is the oil that greases the work; without it, the engine burns out and the whole enterprise comes to a sudden stop. Yet inspiration does not come easy.

Blog: The Revelation of Steve Jobs

Both CIOs and Jobs share a difficult task: finding ways to inspire engineers and technicians, a special breed of worker not prone to be emotionally moved by a piece of art.

Nevertheless, Jobs saw something in the paintings of Mark Rothko, the Russian-born American abstract expressionist, that would inspire Apple-minded employees. Rothko himself was inspired by mythology and influenced by Nietzsche, according to Wikipedia. (Sadly, Rothko committed suicide in 1970.)

Mark Rothko's works hang on the walls untitled and anonymous.

It is anyone's guess what Jobs saw in the outwardly simplistic paintings. I can imagine Jobs chuckling at the illusion of simplicity that belies intense skill and complex thought, the hallmark behind virtually every Apple product. Rothko's paintings would be a kind of inside joke shared among Apple employees.

Inspiration can come in many forms, not just art or songs or speeches. More often than not, people are inspired when their work is connected to something bigger than themselves, such as a team effort or higher calling or a purpose beyond better salaries.

Inspiration is anything that transcends the reality of the daily toil.

One way to keep techies inspired is to make sure their brilliance is not only recognized but actually makes a difference. In Jobs' case, not every engineer liked him but they respected his ability to envision and enhance technology's role in society.

"Engineers respect leaders who love technology and can take their ideas and turn it into a product that sells," executive leadership expert Paul David Walker, author of Unleashing Genius (Morgan James Publishing, 2008), told me this summer. "In this way, Steve Jobs is an engineer's greatest ally."

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