What not to learn from Steve Jobs

October 7, 2011, 1:08 PM UTC

The day before Steve Jobs died, I asked a well-known management consultant about the difficulty of drawing lessons from Apple’s success. After all, the company seems to ignore accepted management wisdom.

Listen to your customers? Apple doesn’t. It gives customers products and services they didn’t even know they wanted.

Be the customer’s biggest advocate? Every Apple (AAPL) product has obsolescence built in, and if I lose my laptop’s power cord, they charge me $80 for a new one. Not what I’d call customer-friendly. This company seems to break basic rules, yet it’s staggeringly successful.

What gives?

The consultant wisely answered a larger question than I had asked. “Steve Jobs and Jack Welch have done more damage to ordinary businesses and business people than anyone else,” he said. Their historic success led many people into the trap of believing that, because these guys achieved what they did, others can do the same.

So people came up with business plans that required them to do what Jobs did — to sense what customers would love years in advance, to infuse everything about the business with an aesthetic that was sublime yet broadly appealing, to negotiate with brutal intensity, to punish bad work mercilessly while also inspiring great work, to see a bigger picture than anyone else in the industry. When it turned out they couldn’t do this — and of course none of them could — their businesses would suffer or even fail.

If we aren’t already, we will soon be awash in articles on the management and leadership lessons of Jobs’ career. Such lessons do exist, and I believe they’re extremely important. But they’re about the nuts and bolts of organization, structure, competencies, and incentives, not about the ineffable qualities of the man himself.

For now, let’s be clear on what not to learn from Jobs. We can’t be him. He was a unique combination of compulsions, traits, and experiences. I asked the consultant if Jobs should be regarded as an Alexander the Great figure, a one-time phenomenon that is not to be replicated. Yes, he agreed.

A challenge for business people will be finding inspiration in Jobs without deluding themselves into thinking they can figure out how to do what he did. Here’s a way to start: by remembering that imitating someone else was the very last thing Steve Jobs ever wanted to do.

For more, please read Fortune‘s ebook All About Steve.