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Five Risk Management Lessons from Steve Jobs’ Life .. and Death

Like many other folks, I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Steve Jobs. Jobs was and is a fascinating character, a visionary who changed the paradigm in multiple fields – personal computing, movies, music, cell phones, tablets. He successfully navigated multiple risks and obstacles, leaving Apple as perhaps the world’s most valuable company.

Isaacson’s compelling biography has shot to the top of current non-fiction best-seller lists. Interestingly, Isaacson will be a keynote speaker at the annual RIMS Conference, held this year in Philadelphia. Someone else must also think that Jobs’ story has lessons for risk professionals.

The success of Jobs’ biography has spawned a new generation of CEO’s who are Jobs wannabees – sporting black turtlenecks, turning minimalist and peppering their conversations with the Jobs-ian phrase, “Oh, just one more thing …”

In terms of navigating external risks in the business environment, Jobs was a genius.
In terms of navigating risks in his personal space, though, Jobs’ track record falters. Ultimately, Jobs succumbed to a form of pancreatic cancer which he had dealt with for years. Long before his demise in October of 2011, though, Jobs’ cancer was diagnosed in 2003. According to Isaacson, his doctors did a biopsy and were overjoyed to learn that Jobs had an unusual form of pancreatic cancer that was treatable through surgery. They – and many of Jobs’ friends and confidantes – recommended immediate surgery to stem the disease’s progression. His doctors lobbied for it. His family urged him to have the operation. Friends prevailed upon him.

Jobs refused.

He did not want “his body to be opened up.” Instead, he delayed and dallied. He explored holistic regimens to address his cancer: alternative therapies, including diet and visualization. Throughout his life, Job had experimented with offbeat diets and regimens. He fasted regularly. He was a “fruitarian” for one phase. Perhaps one of these regimens could address his pancreatic cancer.

They did not work.

By the time Jobs was willing to undergo surgery in late July of 2004, the window of opportunity for effective intervention had passed. The cancer had spread. He bought time with a liver transplant and various other treatments, but he failed to heed the advice of doctors and others that could have saved his life or extended it well beyond the span that he lived.

Five risk management lessons emerge here:

1. Weigh the advice and counsel of experts. Here, virtually everyone around Jobs suggested surgery. He discounted the advice, having succeeded in “willing his way” around most every other problem he had faced in his life. His “reality distortion field” did not extend to willing away pancreatic cancer cells. You don’t need to be an oncologist to understand that cancer cells don’t stop metastasizing because you are on a macrobiotic diet. In the realm of risk, if your defense attorney and policyholder are telling you to move to settle the claim, NOW, maybe you should listen.

2. Listen to your gut, but don’t always trust it. Instincts are not unerring. Experts are not infallible, but then neither are your instincts. No one wants to undergo surgery. No one wants to die, either. By undergoing surgery, though, he might have avoided premature death. Is it your gut that’s talking or is it the whisper of wishful thinking?

3. Human will is strong, but you cannot “will away” certain risks. Companies may wish to ignore risks because they resent having to deal with them. The Ostrich Approach of sticking your head in the sand leaves you exposed. Companies targeted in lawsuits may resent finding themselves as defendants. “This is a bogus claim!!” They can become so mentally wrapped around the axle with indignation, they cannot view a claim unemotionally. Around a boardroom or conference room table, they convince themselves that they have no liability exposure. There is boardroom reality, though and there is courtroom reality. Unfortunately for companies, claims are tried in the latter, not the former.

4. Risk mitigation opportunities often have short windows. Seize them. Individuals – and companies – often have to seize the moment. Once passed, the window of opportunity may close and forestall opportunities to change one’s fate for the better. Timing is critical when it comes to mitigating emergent risks. Failing to address an employee unsafe practice on a “near miss” may open the door to more serious accidents down the road. It may also compromise the ability to later deny claims due to violating a safety standard. The toothpaste won’t go back in the tube. Carpe diem!

5. If you neglect personal risks – especially those regarding your health – you won’t be able to address external, macro risks. Put bluntly, you cannot continue to make ”insanely great” products if you are dead. In a sense, personal risk management – starting with managing one’s health – is the bedrock. Neglect that, and everything else that you set out to do can become moot. Before an airplane’s takeoff, flight attendants go through their safety instructions. They tell you that, in case of lost cabin pressure, put your own oxygen mask on first before trying to assist a child. This advice underscores the reality that you cannot help others without first taking care of yourself.

Steve Jobs was undoubtedly a genius. Perhaps it is unfair to expect a person to exhibit genius in all phases of his life. When it came to his own health and weighing medical risks, though, Jobs’ decision to forego rapid and decisive action deprived Apple of his continued leadership and deprived the public of an ongoing stream of innovative products which he might have developed through a longer lifespan and more sensible personal risk management.

Kevin Quinley CPCU is Principal of Quinley Risk Associates in the Washington D.C. area. He is the author of ten books on various aspects of claims and risk management. You can reach him at

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