Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 14, Issue No. 7b
November 15, 2015

By Dan Coughlin



Steve Jobs and maturity.

That may seem like an odd pairing, but I think it contains the secret to great business leadership.

Over the past several months, I’ve been thinking about what is the single most important word that describes a great business leader. I’ve considered strategy, execution, innovation, influence, decisiveness, empathy, caring, teamwork, perseverance, and many others. In the end, I landed on maturity. As I thought about the really great business leaders I’ve worked with and studied it seemed to me that maturity is the absolute key to having a long-term positive impact on an organization and its results.

Steve Jobs has been on my mind again lately. I saw the film, Steve Jobs, written by Aaron Sorkin. It was a great movie with exceptionally good writing, directing, and acting. However, it was not a very helpful movie for me. It didn’t show what ultimately made him successful. At least it didn’t show it very much. I decided to read one more book on Jobs. It’s called Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. Now that was really helpful. It shows how a more mature Steve Jobs handled situations differently at Apple in his second tour there. I found the same importance of maturity in studying George Washington in a book called Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. The maturity in Washington played a critical role in the success of the American Revolution.

Here are some insights on maturity.

Mature leaders primarily focus on an organizational cause. Immature people primarily focus on internal drama.

Mature people are driven to support a meaningful cause. For Washington during the American Revolution it was independence for the U.S. that drove him year after year. It was the cause that allowed Washington to become closer to his soldiers and endure brutal winters with not nearly enough blankets or clothes. In letter after letter he wrote about the importance of staying faithful to the cause even when things looked bleakest. Mature leaders will argue for the success of a cause, while immature people will argue for the sake of being dramatic and turn every moment into a perceived slight against them.

Think about where you spend your time and energy. Are you focused on helping the purpose of your business to succeed, or do you spend an inordinate amount of time complaining about perceived slights and negatively judging how other people do things and creating office drama?

Mature leaders understand the value of indecisiveness and taking time to learn. Immature people impulsively react to circumstances and jump from one focal point to another.

When Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, he knew the first thing he needed to do was to understand the current state of the business. He quickly realized he had to stabilize the business and generate consistent revenue and profits in order for Apple to survive. He did not try to create breakthrough products to impact whole industries right off the bat. He narrowed the focus of the business to four products and concentrated on generating success within primarily one product: the iMac with its colorful design. He took time to learn the situation, and then he made decisive moves. He and his team took one logical step at a time within two basic strategies: first, the four-quadrant strategy of having four basic products, and second, the digital hub strategy that began to emerge in 2000. Essentially, everything he did over his last 14 years at Apple fit within those two strategies. He and his team steadily moved ahead one logical step at a time. In doing so, they created massive value for people all over the world.

Think about your career decisions and your organizational decisions over the past three years. Have you stayed focused or have your impulsively jumped from one concept to another where the concepts were not connected to each other? Have your decisions stayed true to a common purpose?

Mature leaders learn from a wide variety of people and situations. Immature people think they already have all the answers.

When Washington made a military mistake, he learned from it. At first he tried to win the war through direct military battles. He almost caused the U.S. to lose the war before it had even declared its independence. He learned the value of patience and picking his battles very carefully. The most important turning point for Steve Jobs may have been watching Ed Catmull steadily build Pixar Animation Studios into something significant. On his return to Apple, Jobs focused on influencing a small group of senior executives and allowed them to influence their team members. Patience and trusting others actually became two of his successful leadership traits. He also was open to ideas that came to Apple from a wide variety of sources such as the people who brought ideas on touch screen computers and the technology for storing over 1,000 songs on a small device. Allow other people to shine. Let their talents flourish and be used in useful ways. That’s a signal you know you don’t know it all and you can’t do it all.

Who have you learned from in the past 90 days? Make a list. See if you consider yourself to be open-minded or not.

Mature leaders are deliberate with their emotions. Immature people are reactionary.

A mature person consciously thinks through the emotion he or she wants to project to others. Calmness is a remarkably effective emotion in many business situations. Jealousy, anger, and pessimism might be your spontaneous reaction, but if you can contain your emotions and guide them effectively, you can influence others in an intentional way.

Maturity is not a function of age, but rather of how you think.

I’ve met people in their twenties who were remarkably mature, and I’ve met many people in their fifties and sixties who were remarkably immature. Maturity cannot be purchased. It doesn’t arrive with a new title or a new income level. It can’t be given to you from another person. You can’t earn it by working harder or longer hours.

Maturity is based on how a person thinks. Mature thinking can be developed through the environment you grew up in. However, we all know two people who grew up in the same environment where one is very mature and the other is very immature. Maturity can also be generated by a dramatic life experience such as a death in the family, a loss of a job, a sickness, a collapse of a marriage, a serious accident, failing to achieve a major goal, meeting a mentor, or the birth of a child. When a person is challenged to think differently, he or she might evolve into a more mature person. However, it is still up to the individual as to whether or not he or she thinks any differently after the event as compared to before it.

In the end, for a person to become more mature he or she will have to choose a more mature way of thinking. A person can develop more mature thinking without an intervening person or event to stimulate the maturing process. He or she can choose to discern situations more carefully and think in ways that create more effective emotions, decisions, and behaviors.

Ironically, one key to becoming mature is to jump all the way into situations in an immature way. That happened to both Steve Jobs and George Washington early in their careers. They didn’t just dip their toe in the water. They jumped into their careers and did a lot of immature things. Those actions caused them to almost crash and burn, but also helped them to learn better ways to handle situations.

Whatever you do, jump all the way in. Even if in retrospect you realize you handled it in an immature way, you may very well learn and mature in the process. If you sit on the sidelines, you won’t come across as immature, but you also won’t develop as a leader.

Republishing Articles

My newsletters, Thoughts on Excellence, have been republished in approximately 40 trade magazines, on-line publications, and internal publications for businesses, universities, and not-for-profit organizations over the past 20+ years. If you would like to republish all or part of my monthly articles, please send me an e-mail at with the name of the article you want in the subject heading. I will send you the article in a word document.

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