What We Can Learn From Steve Jobs – Part 2

2012 by Garza

Like other leadership coaches, I love reading stories of inspiring leadership. The ones that come across my desk usually are quite tidy, focused on traits that typify great and effective leadership and uncluttered with flawed behavior that would derail many careers.

The story of Steve Jobs’ leadership is not so tidy. Since reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs earlier this year, I’ve struggled with the puzzle that Jobs presents for leaders and students of leadership. His contributions to leadership, to business, even to the world, were huge. However, his leadership style was at times quite troubling to most observers, if not to Jobs himself.

In his book, Isaacson draws what I assume is a pretty complete picture of Steve Jobs, his genius and his shortcomings, equally unbridled. He shows us the brilliance of the man who built a uniquely successful consumer electronics company and made important contributions to our age of instantaneous global communication – what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a leading religious thinker of our time, calls the world’s fourth great information revolution – the inventions of writing, the alphabet, and the printing press being the other three. One does not accomplish what Jobs did without being an effective and even an inspiring leader.

He was a brilliant man, a genius, and yet . . . .

Steve Jobs also had huge blind spots that, in the context of his many wonderful traits, are disorienting for a student of leadership. They reveal a self-centeredness and vitriolic personality rarely associated with revered leadership. Here are a few examples from Isaacson’s book:

• Do you remember the iconic ad for the first iPod? Brought to Jobs by Apple’s external ad team, it featured a silhouette of someone dancing while listening to an iPod and wearing the now ubiquitous white earphones. Jobs initially favored a more traditional ad layout. To his credit, he eventually saw how the unconventional ad conveyed the consumer’s personal relationship with the device. To his discredit, he later claimed it as his idea. (P. 391)

• Jobs had starkly conflicting values. He refused many trappings of a CEO, like having a reserved parking space at Apple’s Cupertino, CA headquarters. But somehow he felt he had the right to park in handicapped parking spaces. He wanted to be seen as a CEO who wasn’t concerned with this compensation (he worked for $1.00 a year), but he also pressured Apple’s board to make him huge stock option grants. He also ran roughshod over generally accepted corporate governance principles and evidently showed little concern that his actions indirectly derailed the careers of Apple’s General Counsel and CFO. (P. 451)

• Part 1 of our post about Steve Jobs includes a statement from Jobs’ successor at Apple, Tim Cook, in which he reviewed the core values of Apple and explained why he thought Apple would continue to thrive following Jobs’ departure. The last line of the statement said, “And I think, regardless of who is in what job, those values are so imbedded in this company that Apple will do extremely well.” What a beautiful legacy, don’t you think? But according to Isaacson, Cook’s statement, and especially the last line, aggravated Jobs. Rather than take pride in his contribution to his company’s sustainability, Jobs “didn’t know whether to be proud or hurt that [what Cook said] might be true.” In fact, it made Jobs deeply depressed. (P. 488) We might cut Jobs some slack for this reaction – after all, he was dealing with a terminal illness and all of the complex emotions that go along with that. But, frankly, Jobs’ reaction doesn’t seem out of character.

• Soon after Jobs re-joined Apple in 1997, he and his ad team developed a new brand image campaign around the highly successful “Think Different” concept. Presentation of the first version of the text for the campaign didn’t go so well for the ad team’s copywriter. “This is shit!” Jobs yelled. “It’s advertising agency shit and I hate it.” (P. 329)

• On his first day back in 2009 following a health-related leave of absence, Jobs threw a series of tantrums. He ripped up marketing plans, and he tore into people he hadn’t seen in six months. These episodes didn’t detract from how he experienced the day, however. He later remarked to friends, “I had the greatest time being back today . . . . I can’t believe how creative I’m feeling, and how the whole team is.” (P. 489)

• Furious after reading Walter Mossberg’s highly negative Wall Street Journal review of an early iteration of Apple’s cloud technology called MobileMe, Jobs assembled the MobileMe team in the auditorium on Apple’s campus and summarily dismissed the team’s leader and appointed his successor. (P. 531)

What to make of this? Is it a reasonable price to pay for genius? Isaacson points out that many of Jobs’ colleagues who observed or were on the receiving end of his self-centeredness and vitriol conceded he inspired them to do things they never dreamed of doing. And Isaacson observes that Jobs’ style of leadership created a magnificent company crammed with “A players”.

Here are a few thoughts:

First, you have to ask the obvious question: As great as Apple is, how much greater might it be had Jobs made sure Apple’s core values included respect for the dignity of others? Driving others to achieve beyond their dreams, holding people accountable for their performance, insisting on excellence – do these things really require the sort of uncontrolled (or even intentional) disregard for the feelings of others that Jobs exhibited over and over again during his leadership of Apple? Might Jobs have accomplished these things, or made even greater contributions, while treating others with respect? I like to think so.

Jobs rationalized his behavior by saying, “This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not.” Jobs apparently believed his inability to manage his emotions was imprinted on his brain like the circuits of an inaccessible motherboard. This ignores the potential for positive change that leadership coaches believe lies within all of us. Isaacson also quotes Jobs as saying “Maybe there’s a better way, a gentlemen’s club where we all wear silk ties and speak in Brahmin language with velvet code words, but I don’t know that way, because I am middle class from California.” Well, there is a lot of territory between Jobs’ style of leadership and the world of “velvet code words” that Jobs disdains. In between the two extremes is room for direct communication, while treating people with respect. In fact, being respectful of the dignity of another often requires a leader to be blunt. But it seems Jobs either didn’t want to put in the effort to change his behavior or never understood his potential for managing his anger or disappointment when speaking the truth as he saw it.

On the other hand, Jobs build the culture he wanted. He demanded excellence, prized brutal honesty, and strictly enforced accountability. I suspect few joined Apple unaware of the culture. So what’s wrong with that? Maybe nothing. Except that I’m concerned many now see Jobs’ style of leadership as a model to emulate and an excuse for failing to manage their emotions. I wonder how many CEOs and other leaders and managers Jobs has emboldened to disregard common respect for others on the theory that if it’s good enough for Steve Jobs . . . .

Everyone agrees Steve Jobs’ aesthetic genius was unique. It’s tempting to say the end justified Jobs’ means, that a few damaged careers and bruised egos are well worth Jobs’ accomplishments. For me, there is something really uncomfortable about the idea that Jobs’ accomplishments make the bruised egos and damaged careers he left in his wake okay. After all, are a few aesthetically beautiful and elegantly functioning consumer electronic products really that important in the greater scheme of things? (There is an irony at play here, as I type these words on my iMac, with an iPhone sitting on my desk and an iPad down the hall.) I’m no student of philosophy, but I often think about German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s guide for conduct: That we should act to treat humanity always as an end and never simply as a means. For my money, that’s a core value to live up to.

I’m grateful to Walter Isaacson for his wonderful contribution to the literature of leadership. His biography of Steve Jobs presents perplexing questions about what makes a great leader, and no doubt it will enliven leadership discussions for decades to come.

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