The Bi-Side of Steve Jobs

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!
Social Steve



Filed under Social Steve, SocialSteve, Steve Jobs

36 responses to “The Bi-Side of Steve Jobs

  1. As a character in a movie, SJ would be fantastic. As a boss….?

    Apple as a product is curious. It is both brilliant and arrogantly flawed, like the man behind it.

    I do not know what to make of this.

    A character in one of our feature film projects said, “humanity is only motivated by fear or greed. It needs tyrants to rule it. It is the only reason it respects”.

    Sometimes, I think this is true and that is why SJ was so successful but his disease reveals, just like with humanity’s disease, an underlying sickness in the species.

    I agree with you Steve. (Social Steve). I don’t like the world that men like SJ create yet it appears to be the one we are living in. I used to hate Apple, now I am jammed between an incompetent MS, an overlord Google and Apple. Apple is beginning to look like a good choice. So, the tyrant wins out simply because the other tyrants cant deliver or threaten to take over the world.

    It’s just plain depressing and coming from an uptempo, positive kind of guy, (Me), that says a lot.

    • Hi David, Come on over to the dark side….you will be glad you did. When I first moved back to Mac (I learned to program on an Apple 3 in college….then used Wintel computers in corporate for 15 years) I kept thinking, “This is a little bit better than my Dell, but not earth shaking.” I went along like that for about 6 months. Then I had to use an HP at work for about a week and my thinking became, “Oh! I forgot about that…this is miserable….when can I get back to my Mac!?!?”

  2. Steve A Furman


    While reading the biography I had a number of similar thoughts about Steve that you have expressed. How could he have been so cold hearted? One would think that he could have created great products and be a nicer human being. But that wasn’t Steve. His obsession with perfection most likely led to high stress and regular anger. All things that breakdown the human condition, not prolong it. That probably cost him a couple of decades of life.

    Still, like you, I am in awe at what he accomplished because to do it required more courage than most of us can muster.


    • Steve –

      Thanks for chiming in and also for being the motivation of the article. Always nice to engage on Twitter – and then something come of it. Hope to connect again soon.


  3. David – very interesting take. Thanks for sharing your views!

    Best, Steve

  4. Thanks for the post. I have studied Jobs for over 10 years now. Although I was the industry “FireWire guy” for 15 years, I never met Jobs. I do know someone who worked with him at NeXT (and says Jobs was a total jerk and miserable to work for) and someone who worked for him during his second time at Apple (but this guy was too smart to say anything bad about his boss). I have heard that he was not overly intelligent but was more intuitive. Still, his marketing ability (and I include all 4 “P”s when I talk about marketing….not just promotion) was mind boggling. The Bondi Blue iMac was an incredibly risky move, but he sized up the situation correctly. His counter intuitive approach still blows me away.

  5. More than interesting on a Monday morning, you know me the least technical in the boat i simply use what’s there to talk to people. Have always been outside and seen Apple products as unaffordable in relation to lifestyle, don’t get me wrong always wanted and maybe at one point could have bought Apple but was advised otherwise.

    Like many it I saw his death as a sad day, but i knew nothing much about him, a few quotes seemed to cover the inspiration and I was done. Whether Apple out sells others or innovates beyond others the marketing was good enough to make people want, whether they needed is another matter. Not sure if sales are good bad or ugly.

    What i would prefer to have heard is that people at this level had changed, doesn’t sound like they have. So bring me the ‘artists’ that Seth Godin talks of as they [we] are far more connected to the people that matter not those that pay.

    I may be way off mark but that’s just my two penn’orth as we say here in the UK.

  6. Jim Matorin

    Few people have the whole enchillada. He was what he was. Not sure why people are dishing on him at this point. Let us just respect him for his business accomplishments.

    • Jim,

      My point was not to discredit his great accomplishments and belittle them. The question I raise is what could have been if he were a strong people leader. No one has the whole enchillada, but most strive to be a better person. Jobs repeatedly simply said, “I am who I am.”


  7. Peregrine

    Whenever I think of Steve Jobs, I remember a friend in med school talking about how he (Jobs) displayed sociopathic tendencies. Years later, John Ronson released “The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry,” and I thought, “Oh yeah! Spot on. More psycho- than socio-.” The fact is that Jobs did display most, if not all, of those characteristics. What’s important to note is that it’s rare. (About 1% of people fall into this category, although among CEOs it’s more like 4%.) It’s also not something desirable. After all, psychopaths DESTROY.

    It’s something to consider when you look for a job. Is your CEO like Schultz at Starbucks or Welch at GE, or is he (for lack of a better term) a bastard who wields cruelty the way others of his ilk would use a knife? It’s important because the company culture is affected: People are either happy or they live in fear because they are among those who cause it.

  8. JK


    You’re post hit a chord with me. When the biography was released I was finishing up Good to Great. As I [concurrently] read countless reviews and summaries on the book (from EW to SAI), the common theme was how big of a jerk Jobs was. No where do I recall a citation identifying him as a great leader which lead to me to wonder – what if he was a Level 5 leader, versus the Level 4 leader he appears to be?

    Tim Cook appears to have the makings of a Level 5 leader, which could prove extremely fruitful to continue moving Apple forward – giving credit to contributors, fostering a positive culture, establishing a sense of humility throughout the organization (founded in performance not posturing) and using inquisitiveness to excel doubt into motivation to deliver the best results possible.

    Keep it up Steve!

    • Thanks Jason. I agree with your assessment and comments. Furthermore, I agree that Tim Cook appears to be a great leader. Maybe Apple will innovate and deliver even more … the legacy of innovation that Jobs left behind plus some true leadership now. They will be interesting to follow.


  9. I too believe that it’s good for business and the individuals who make it work to question authority and when the important points support the act, to bend the rules. I think this is healthy and do not see it being acceptable to the detriment of other human beings. Two points:
    1. Far too many people in business fear bending the rules and fear authority, but the rules are in a constant state of evolution due to changing markets, changing technology, changing customer needs, and the constant refinement of value models and the rise of progressive companies. So, the rules have to continuously be questioned, bent and redefined. Second to this point is that although authority rarely questions its decisions too deeply, they are right or somewhat right only 54% of the time. Their thinking needs to be questioned when it leaves room for question. More often than not, I see those people running companies fold their arms, lean back in their chairs and confidently make a call that has no reasonable rationale whatsoever. They are unwilling to realize the gaps in their own abilities and fill them by other means. Their minds are not open to alternative reasoning and the people around them simply nod in agreement for fear of the consequences of questioning authority. As prospective clients, I avoid these people because when they do fail, and most do, they tend to blame someone inside or outside of their organization for the failure. It’s rarely their fault.

    2. Based on my observations any intentional behaviors directed to the detriment of other human beings, are typically practiced by weak and insecure people, and conducted to make themselves feel temporarily less weak and temporarily more important in their own eyes. In the end, they stifle development, collaboration, ideation, the creation of a WE culture, and they should not be a part of any organization.

    One of the joys of being a management advisor is having the freedom to question authority and constructively criticize decision making. Not to mention the freedom to walk out of the door. The status quo is eventually boring, ultimately ineffective and out of touch with the realities of a dynamic global market.

    “Think Different”

  10. I may not be qualified to comment, having not read the biography yet (and it is a “yet” — I _will_ read it), but I wonder whether he was such a “pitiful soul” after all? He seemed to know that he was both a true genius and a right bastard, and he may have been OK with that. Who are we to pity a man who so fully embraces “I am what I am”?

    There’s nothing in you musings that surprises me: everybody I know who has worked with him said the same (I was at Apple for 7 of its “non-Steve” years, but have been close to a lot of Apple folks who worked directly with him from the early 80s), highlighting the seemingly capricious nature of his wrath, his complete devotion to having things his way. An infamous story reports SJ stopping a presentation to several hundred employees to kick out a guy in the front row for taking notes while SJ was speaking. And, of course, his use of handicap parking spaces as his own is legendary. Several were repainted as “iCEO Parking” spots, solving the “problem”.

    But pitiful? I don’t know. Conflicted, complex, maybe even, as Peregrine suggests, psychopathological. But if you’ve ever seen the movie “The Corporation”, that description exactly describes the capitalist system in which he thrived. Maybe he was just better adapted to the capitalist psychopathology than the rest of us, who see it as maladaptation.

    Folks like SJ and Jack Welch are simultaneously praised and pilloried because they achieve capitalist success through social brutality. Without defending or deriding capitalism, perhaps they are simply “the fittest” in that environment?

  11. “This IS SHIT”– love those words from Steve Jobs which he intentionally uttered as he confronts an Apple employee trying to ‘pitch’ a new product/prototype/idea in front of him! To me, Steve as the Apple CEO played the ‘role’ of representing the “status quo” (Mona Simpson’s eulogy mentioned Steve did not mind being mis-understood) and it is up to the Apple employee to have the audacity and conviction to prove that Steve “the status quo” needs to change!
    My insight as to his seeming ‘ intentional brusqueness” was his way of encouraging his employees to challenge him and the status quo (his Apple ‘crazy ones’ Ad stated that the ‘crazy ones’ have NO respect for the status quo)–as a result, it made Apple the most innovative, progressive company ever! No wonder those brave Apple employees who had the gall and the guts to stand up against Steve are the ones he promoted as executives of his company! (kindred spirits)
    That is what is impressive about Steve–he is willing to be challenged, and if you prove to him that your point/ idea/product is greater or better than his existing one–he is willing to listen, and implement the new idea, even if it is NOT his!! That is a mark of a confident LEADER! Willing to be proven wrong, and humble enough to admit it!

    • Solid points, but a leader does not take credit for the things over do or come up with. Jobs did this often and talk about a way to de-motivate.

      Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

  12. Nice article Steve! well reasoned argument and a passionate case for something you clearly not only feel strongly about but are also well informed about.
    One question, given the advantage that Apple and its products have delivered and will deliver to people all over the world, and in particular, in my personal space which is regarding the impact of Apple products on special education needs children, does the end justify Mr. Jobs means? Can there be a ‘karmic’ measurement of the ‘bad’ he did to those immediately surrounding him friends, colleagues and worst of all family, the effect as detailed in your excellent article, versus the ‘good’ done by his organisation and products multiplied by the ‘customers’ all over the world that bought them and will utilise them for possibly generations to come? I fully appreciate your ‘what if?’ question, but in my experience, it’s what actually happens, good or bad, that matters, not what if’s? And isn’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ dependant in part by where you stand anyway?
    Another great article, thanks, always thought provoking, I really enjoy reading your stuff!

    • Damian – valid questions and challenges. We will never know, but my intuition says if you take someone as brilliant as Jobs was and insert human leadership something even bigger, more impactful could have happened. Brings to mind the leadership style that defined the differences between the North and the South in the US Civil War. I had a leadership course a while ago that highlighted the comparisons and outcome of that war. (maybe another blog post in the making.)

  13. Steve,
    I felt the same way about Steve. As I told my eleven year old son (who idolizes Steve), “Yep, he was brilliant, but he was also kind of a jerk. It’s okay to be smarter than other people without making them feel inferior.” BTW, I pretty much felt the same way about Google’s leadership after reading “In the Plex” by Steven Levy.

    • Hi David – thanks for adding your comments. One of the points that I wanted to make was not only that he was cruel to people, but that there is a business case for being a more humane leader as well.


  14. Dave Land – interesting for sure. Couple of notes … 1) Jobs was never really concerned about his income. He really did not care about the money he had, but rather the success of his company as measured by adoption and use of his products. He often belittled MS and others for concentrating on money rather than product. He thought that money would come if you had a great product and thus Apple had greater innovation than MS. 2) The level of “agreeableness” says nothing about the manner in which you handle your disagreement. No sugar coating – Jobs was an @$$ in the way he disagreed and argued with people.


  15. Great post Steve. Thanks for taking the time. Is it possible that SJ is just an exaggerated version of all of ways both better and worse? He achieved greatness in ways few of us will and acted malovently in ways few of us ever would. I’m not excusing the behavior, but not sure that really matters. I wonder if it might have been necessary to ignore the naysayers, the multitude of middle men and blind yes men, to forge the path to the future when many wanted to stay on safe ground. I’m just not sure it can always be done nicely.

  16. Matt Lindsay

    Great insights. I was on the fence about reading this biography and this certainly tipped the scales. Thanks Steve!

    • Hey Matt – I learned much from the book. I think everyone will. Best, Steve

      • Matt

        Steve – purchased the eBook and finished it a few weeks back. A compelling read and better than anything I’ve read in business school. One of the most compelling biographies I have ever read. So many good lessons and so many pitfalls to avoid…
        Kudos to jobs for giving Isaacson this kind of access, but I keep wondering whether the biographer didn’t fall victim to the ‘reality distortion field’ a bit at times. (Found myself doing this as a reader to be fair).
        Love your closing ‘graph – I feel totally the same way myself! Thanks again for the compelling blog post and the “push” to give it a read. – Matt

      • Thanks Matt. Hope you are well. Yes … a most enjoyable read. Best,

  17. I loved this biography as I’ve gone through it two times in the past month. We can all agree that, in Steve’s own description of many others, he was an asshole. However, what I like about this bio more than anything else is the overall Philosophy of Design as seen in it’s up and down moments through the history of Apple. The bio to me has become more of a template for products as it is the one book that holds the ideas and processes that Jobs and Apple followed/follow.

    This, coupled with another re-reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (the philosophy of quality), can provide some interesting insights into a successful business plan.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s