Young Steve Jobs

Earlier this month, Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, died after years of fighting pancreatic cancer. From obits and op-eds in print and online, to the walls of Post-It note memorials at Apple stores around the world, there has been a flood of ink and pixels commemorating the man and his legacy.

Business leaders have focused on his success as the CEO of Apple, his genius for creating a personal brand, and his focused, yet often ruthless, management style. Christian leaders have drawn comparisons between Apple's stable of iDevices with the "superhighways" of the Roman Empire -- both notable for increasing the reach of the gospel. Even his contribution to making sophisticated typography available to the masses has been lauded. (I found this latter article particularly interesting.)

So I have to ask myself, does the life of Steve Jobs offer any lessons for those involved in leading theological schools? What is the takeaway for board governance?

Jobs was known for outside-the-box thinking, for an all-consuming fervor for "getting it right," and for not being afraid to take big risks. (The most unfortunate result of these traits might just be the nine months he spent seeking alternative treatments for cancer, delaying the treatments that might have saved his life.)

But I think the bullet point that might be most applicable to boards members is the commitment Steve Jobs had for the mission.

Jobs was ousted from Apple in 1986 by the company's board of directors. Apple eventually languished without him, and his return in 1996 ushered in what may be the company's most influential years. When asked in 2004 about this turnaround, Jobs mentioned two goals. "[O]ur primary goal here is to make the world's best PCs -- not to be the biggest or the richest. . . . We have a second goal, which is to always make a profit -- both to make some money but also so we can keep making those great products." (This quotation is from the October 12, 2004, issue of Business Week.) Jobs believed Apple lost its way when the leadership made money-making its number one goal.

Perhaps you're thinking, I wish theological education were as easy a sell as an iPod. It's not, and schools will always struggle with making enough money, but keeping the focus doggedly on the mission is essential. And I think that when a board knows its goals and keeps its collective eyes on those goals, the other stuff -- creative thinking, a passion to get it right, and taking risks -- will follow.