I really wasn’t going to write about it, but another Twitter conversation provoked my blog post this week …
Steve Jobs – the man was a genius. The man was a pitiful soul.
Walter Isaacson does a masterful job in his book, Steve Jobs. He interviewed over 100 people to bring an honest portrayal of a true legend. The book could have used one more edit (as it was released about 6 months ahead of schedule due to Steve’s death), but nonetheless, the biography is gripping, inspiring, and frustrating all in the same breathe.
There is so much that can be said about Steve Jobs. The book itself is almost 600 pages but feels like only the surface has been scratched. But this article is not a review of the book, nor a summary of Steve Jobs. Rather what I’d like to talk about is my personal perception of Steve Jobs and the nerve he struck with me.
First off, Steve Jobs deserves all the accolades with regards to truly changing lives and our culture as so many have already stated. His vision and ingenuity directly affect how generations will act, behave and carry out their lives. How many others fall into that category? Thomas Edison? Albert Einstein? Walt Disney? A pretty esteemed group for sure. His innovations in personal computing, animated movies, portable music players, retail stores, smartphones, computing tablets, and cloud computing define his legacy. Steve’s acceptance and pride of being different and an outsider not only resonate with me, but have been a rally call when I have questioned my own outlook, perspectives, and approach.
But for all the inspiration Steve Jobs has provided for me, I am equally appalled by him. Steve had utter disregard for people and the humankind. He was ruthless, self-absorbed and had no problem or even conscious belittling people and melting their pride, sense of self worth, and overall existence. True leaders bring out the best in people. While Jobs did accomplish this with some, there were far more that he crumbled. He was a tyrant, not unlike some of the most evil men in history, but luckily he did not delve into politics or government rule.
By now you might be thinking I am a bit too harsh and my mere comparison to evil minded men is inappropriate. Maybe so, but I look at Steve Jobs’ pure brilliance and cannot wonder what would have been had he any compassion or care for people.
Steve was obsessed with only having A-players in the Apple organization. As a professional manager and leader, I can appreciate how important this is to drive success and competitive advantage. But as I so often use sports as a metaphor of winning and losing, I think of how many championship teams had superstars and A-players as well as role players to round out a perfect synergy. Winning teams have A-players, yes – but they also have strong supporting B-players.
I think of another executive leader, Jack Welch, who had a 20-70-10 rule when it came to people in his organization. He said 20% were top performers – you had to let them and everyone else in the organization know they were tops by rewarding them in certain ways. 70% were the majority and good performers and core to your company. Then there was the bottom 10% and they needed to be rotated out. You see, strong organizations have balance – exceptional individuals, role players, and supporters.
And then there is Tony Hsieh – CEO of Zappos. I read his book Delivering Happiness. I learned much from Tony. Much like Steve Jobs, Hsieh was not motivated by financial reward. But unlike Jobs, Hsieh built a culture of respect and love for what you are doing. Jobs on the other hand “motivated” people with fear. And when the results were significant, it was usually Jobs taking the credit. In fact, the book portrays numerous examples of Jobs taking credit for things that others had thought of or brought to fruition. There is a leadership quality that differs between Hsieh and Jobs and I could go on and on about the benefits and disadvantages of the two. Let’s just say I favor B.F. Skinner’s approach to behavior modification when it comes to leadership and running a company – reward positive behavior, punish negative, both appropriately in magnitude.
Let me give you an example here. Almost 10 years back, I had an employee on my team that was put on PIP (performance improvement plan). He was a slacker. Basically PIP was 1) a formal way to document and fire under performers, or 2) change the unsatisfactory ways of employee such that they contribute measured value to the company. In a Steve Jobs environment, this would never happen. Jobs would literally berate and lash out at the employee in front of an entire group and fire them on the spot. (He tells a story about looking at his (then) young son, Reed, and thinking about the guy he had just fired and that guy having to go home to his son family … never really sympathizing, but wondering what it would be like.) Anyway, back to my PIP story … I worked with this employee on a crucial mainframe modernization (not an oxymoron) program. He put together a program that resulted in increasing year-over-year revenue for our mainframe – something that had been unheard of to that point. I am proud to think my actions, coaching, and care produced measurable results for the company AND turned a D-player into an important contributor for the company and saved his job.
Steve Jobs pushed the limits as great entrepreneurs always do. He even ran commercials on thinking different, going where no man has gone before; experimenting. But he did not accept failure in his company. He ridiculed those that had, in his eyes, failed. You cannot push for innovation – innovation that calls for experiments – and not allow experiments that sometimes fail. It is worth noting that, although Steve Jobs was extremely successful, he did have some failures. Case in point – NeXT Computer … never came close to be the next computer.
What really bewildered me about Jobs was that his lack of care and self absorption was extended to his family as well. There are many examples of this. One such is Isaacson’s documentation of Jobs’ disregard and dismissal of the daughter he fathered early in his life. The one story that really surprises me most is when Steve’s third round of cancer flares up and he basically knows life is short. His concerns seem to be paramount for his business and minimal for his wife and children. I strive for a work-life balance, but I am often guilty of being too professionally driven. Even so, I cannot understand having knowledge that your days are numbered and not capturing every possible moment with your love ones.
It really comes down to the fact that Steve Jobs thought he was bigger than life itself. Whether it was his psychological inhumane treatment of people or ignoring early recommendations of cancer treatment and thinking that he could will away the life threatening disease with his own rationalized crazy diet. Jobs did not believe his life was bound by the rules others lived by. Look, anyone that knows me throughout my life knows that I have always questioned authority and bent the rules. I think this is healthy. But I do not see this being acceptable to the detriment of other human beings.
I recognize that Steve Jobs was far more professionally successful than I will ever be. I also know that Steve’s intelligence and brilliance far exceed mine. Thus, many can question who the heck I am to question him. I question based on the supreme gift he had (intelligence, intuition, design mastery, and a great technical, marketing, and overall business sense) and not doing more – more for people – less self driven outcomes. So yeah – I have some strong opinions here and I am sure I am not alone. Independent of whether you agree or disagree, add your two cents …
Make It Happen!