10/02/2012 10:44 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

The Debates: What Obama and Romney Can Learn from Steve Jobs

"The first task of a leader is to help define reality." -- Max DePree, former CEO of Herman Miller

Define Reality, Declare Mission, Decide Strategy

Define Reality

Steve Jobs apparently knew this and it became the driving force in building Apple. He may not have said the following, but his actions seem to have communicated it: "Computers and technology are not going to go away. Computers are complicated, unreliable and ugly. If we build computers that are simple, reliable and beautiful, the masses will beat a path to our door. And by the way, I don't know how to build what I'm describing, but I'll recognize it when I see it and I will trash anything that isn't, even if it means throwing away millions of dollars."

The key components of this vision (and the steps to fulfilling the vision) were:

Identify something...:

  1. ...that is widely used or in demand
  2. ...that isn't going away
  3. ...that is currently very flawed
  4. ...that if those flaws were corrected would attract the masses
  5. ...would go viral and own the world

For President Obama and Governor Romney healthcare reform, foreign policy, education and a sound economy including jobs are widely needed, not going to go away, are currently very flawed, but if those flaws were corrected would attract the passion, loyalty and commitment of the masses and would go viral and be the model for the rest of the world.

Declare Mission

It's not enough to have a mission, a leader must declare it.

Jobs' mission for Apple was to build "insanely great" products that were simple, reliable and beautiful. And he declared that, explaining it was secondary. When you explain something too early it sounds and feels weak and not leader like. JFK declared that we would put men on the Moon and safely bring them back by the end of the 1960s. He didn't focus on explaining that we needed to catch up with the Russians who were ahead of us in the space race. Declaring something also tells people where you stand and what you stand for.

Obama and Romney need to declare a mission to not merely fix health care, foreign policy, education and the economy, but to create successful healthcare, foreign policy, education and economic policies.

Currently the two candidates often seem more as if they are yelling than declaring in their tone. Obama was very declarative in 2008, but because of his mixed results he can't get away with that now.

Decide Strategy

Jobs' strategy was to create products he would recognize in his mind's eye that were simple, reliable and beautiful (hence the hit to their stock price when the new Apple mapping system for the iPhone5 was found wanting) and then get them in front (marketing) of customers who would go gaga over them.

Now here is the good news. Neither Obama or Romney have to be like Steve Jobs and personally come up with that vision of an "insanely great" America; all they need to do is identify advisers who are able to define a reality in each of those areas that all Americans could and would want to live into. After that, the candidates merely need to be the evangelist in chief for those visions and have great managers/lieutenants to carry them out.

Leaders need to empathize with their people, but not get sucked into the weeds where that empathy can cause the leader to be sidetracked from their vision and mission. That is why you see Obama and Romney trying to connect with people, but both being a little tentative in doing it (Romney wins the tentativity contest), because they know that once someone glomps onto them they have to then say, "Gotta go," (which is something many of us feel when someone glomps onto you and you need to leave).

A key thing to keep in mind for such advisers with their strategies is that to the vast majority of the American public they:

  1. Make sense, i.e. appear sensible and reasonable.
  2. Feel right and sound vs. feel wrong and unsound (Romney's current challenge in connecting with the middle class).
  3. Seem doable to regular people that don't have to be geniuses.