Leadership and the beauty principle

Feb 19 2015 by Michael Jones Print This Article

For Steve Jobs, making objects that were beautiful as well as functional was a cornerstone of Apple’s philosophy. He even insisted that the circuit boards fitted inside the early Macintosh computers looked good. "When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it,” he once said. “You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood in the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through."

The old economic paradigm was based on power and influence. But the soul of the new economy will be based on beauty. Like great artists, business leaders sometimes radically change the whole form they are working on. And what leads to this transformation is beauty. Power may inspire the mind of a leader, but it is beauty that inspires their soul. Power helps get things done, but it is beauty that grips the imagination and inspires what needs to get done. Power may define what we think we need, but it is beauty, through directing the eye to a greater possibility, that finds promise in an uncertain world.

It was the pursuit of this promise that drove Steve Jobs. His dedication to creating beauty defined Apple and underpinned its strategic thinking , revolutionizing the computer industry in the process. And while Jobs was an accomplished business strategist, he was first and foremost a craftsman and an artist. “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like,” he said. “Design is how it works.”

For Jobs it was the tactile experience of holding an Apple device that set the tone. And this was because what lay at the heart of the experience of touch was delight. From his earliest days, Jobs was obsessed with delighting the customer with the joyful use of the product itself.

He loved finely designed and crafted things like Ansel Adams’s prints and Bösendorfer pianos. He displayed a Bösendorfer handcrafted grand piano in the main foyer of the Apple offices. It served as a daily reminder that Apple employees were not only engineers but designers and craftspeople. Jobs wanted them to see their work as art and to carry this aesthetic throughout all phases of the design and manufacturing process.

Jobs envisioned marrying together the arts with great design in ways that expressed the elegance of human touch - even romance. What was most important for him was setting the profit motive in the service of a higher purpose - which was putting the quest for beauty back into the mainstream of human consciousness.

The ease of use, the simplicity of design, the flow of operation - all these and more lay at the heart of Jobs’ vision for creating not only functional but artful innovation. This went beyond asking what the customer wanted, because the customer themselves often may not have thought this was possible. In place of focus groups, benchmarking and market surveys, his approach was to surprise the customer with innovations they could not have dreamed possible.

Communicating through beauty and touch invites empathy with the other. It enables us to connect with the felt sense of the experience itself. The simplicity of design, the ease, flow and intuitive logic of operations, the tactile pleasure and delight of the touch screen, invites us into the natural and intuitive flow of experience with the confidence that each element is true to itself and couldn’t be more or less than what it is. This iterative movement of going over it time and time again in order to reduce complicated steps to their most essential, simplest and most elegant form is at the core of the art of innovation.

But the way that beauty helps create a sense of empathy, meaning and connection addresses a deeper need that the world also longs for and deserves.

My colleague Bob Stilger, following the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the Tohoku Region on northeast coast of Japan in 2011, has, for the past four years, helped people come together to listen to each other and find their way forward after losing loved ones, homes, land and jobs.

He asks; “How do we go beyond planning? How do we step into the unexpected? How to we find our way forward when the lives we have known disappear? Is it possible that through crisis there is a key that opens the door to a new possibility.”

From his observations and experiences Bob concluded is that the key he was looking for was beauty. The shared experience of love, connectedness, aesthetics and order are just a few of the qualities of our shared humanity that beauty instills. For Bob it offered a point of entry and a common ground where people throughout the country who had lost so much could go to deep places of sharing with a renewed sense of hope and possibility.

So the path to beauty is not only a platform for innovation and transforming how we do business. It is also a fundamental principle of life a springboard for building resilient and hospitable communities.

As Canadian Author Ann Michaels observed: “Look carefully, record what you see. Find a way to make beauty necessary find a way to make necessity beautiful.”

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About The Author

Michael Jones
Michael Jones

Michael Jones is a leadership educator, author and Juno-nominated pianist/composer. His most recent book, The Soul of Place: Re-imagining Leadership Through Nature, Art and Community, is the third in a series asking how leaders can re- imagine places as living systems inspired by nature, art, community and our deepening humanity.