My Steve Jobs problem

In business, and in life, we’d like to believe that good behavior will be rewarded. Most books on management talk about treating people with respect, or being firm but not harsh, or being generous about sharing credit. What goes around comes around, right? Right.

So what are we to make of Steve Jobs?

Walter Isaacson

I’ve just read Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson’s riveting biography of the Apple founder and CEO. It’s a terrific book, but an unnerving one–because Jobs was successful despite some sneaky dealings, despite his utter lack of interest in corporate social responsibility, at least as it is conventionally defined, and despite treating people in ways that violate most everything that’s taught at business schools, or, for that matter, in kindergarten.

He could be cold, unpleasant, petulant, arrogant, abusive and self-absorbed. What’s more, this dark side of Jobs seems to be  intertwined with his brilliant and obsessive devotion to making great products at Apple. A “demented genius,” one reviewer called him. Having said that, Jobs could also be sweet, vulnerable, boyish, charming and endearing–when he chose to be.

It’s hard to overstate what Jobs accomplished in his 56 years. No, he didn’t cure cancer or alleviate global poverty but he remade a half dozen industries, all with panache: personal computers, music, animated movies (with Pixar), phones, tablet computing and digital publishing. My life is richer, more fun and more productive because of Jobs. I’m writing this on a MacBook, and I own an iPhone4s, an iPad, and a bunch of iPods. I’ve run hundreds of miles with my Nano, loaded with podcasts or music from iTunes, and  I’ve spent, conservatively, close to $10,000 on Apple products for myself, my wife and daughters.

Then again, there’s this…a story about how Jobs, on a trip to New York, gets into a battle at 10 ‘clock at night with a PR woman named Andy Cunningham over what kinds of flowers need to be  in his hotel suite for interviews the next morning. Somehow, she finds the calla lilies he wants, and then:

By the time they got the room rearranged, Jobs started objecting to what she was wearing. “That suit’s disgusting,” he told her. Cunningham knew that at times he just simmered with undirected anger, so she tried to calm him down. “Look, I know you’re angry, and I know how you feel,” she said.

“You have no fucking idea how I feel,” he shot back, “no fucking idea what it is to be me.”

Clearly, Jobs was tormented at times. A former girlfriend, who felt enough fondness for Jobs that she supported him during his battle with cancer, nevertheless tells Isaacson: “I realized that expecting him to be nicer or less self-centered was like expecting a blind man to see…I think the issue is empathy–the capacity for empathy is lacking.” He could be unkind to anyone–CEOs of other companies, his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, waiters, hospital nurses.

He was by no means a paragon of  business ethics and  corporate responsibility, Jobs backdated stock options at Apple and Pixar, lied to shareholders about his health, showed no interest in philanthropy (not even matching employee gifts) and brushed off questions about labor rights in China or the environmental impact of Apple’s supply chain, or its products. Other computer makers touted “product design for the environment,” but for Jobs design was all about the user.

So how did he accomplish so much? More specifically, how did he attract legions of great employees who under his leadership accomplished so much? Why did so many people put up with him?

It’s hard for me to understand why Jobs inspired loyalty, but he did. Apple’s lead designer Jonathan Ive, marketing chief Phil Schiller and current CEO Tim Cook spent a decade or more working closely with him, as did many others. Maybe they understood that his brutal honesty was part of what made the company great. Maybe his passion for excellence led them to put up with his tantrums. Maybe they saw him as a tormented soul, and forgave him his outbursts. Maybe Apple was just the coolest place to work.

Isaacson’s book–read it, really–ends with Jobs talking about his legacy in his own words. They offer clues to his success:

My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation.

It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything: the people you hire, you gets promoted, what you discuss in meetings.

Yes! So many business executives miss this–profits are not why companies exist, they are the fuel that companies need to accomplish their purpose, which is to solve people’s problems.


You build a company that will stand for something a generation or two from now. That’s what Walt Disney did, and Hewlett and Packard, and the people who built Intel. They created a company to last, not just to make money. That’s what I want Apple to be.

Jobs, is another words, was not just a great product guy. He thought deeply about the purpose of business, and his own purpose. This–despite his flaws–helps explain why his work mattered.


  1. says

    Marc – I agree, it was an incredible read, and one that was somewhat confounding when you think about the beauty and elegance of the product (and the Apple experience). I wanted that — the result of his hard work, genius, the people he assembled to make it happen — to have brought him some joy. My take-away was that he was human, flawed (maybe excessively flawed when it comes to empathy – you forgot to mention how he parked in handicapped parking spaces!), extraordinarily complicated, and a little tortured by his nature. All that said, I think it will become the gold standard when it comes to being an incredible branding case study.

  2. says

    Marc, I have found myself over the years, either in an airport queue or at an event sharing the podium with esteemed personalities who, for whatever reason, have found it convenient to ruin my experience through their inappropriate, abusive and outrageous behaviour directed particularly to people in a service relationship to them. These same individuals are adored by my friends for their work on behalf of different causes through their critical, transformational work with the Foundations or Institutions they represent. Sadly, I can’t tolerate the mention of their names, attend events where they are profiled, watch them on television, nor can I listen to their inspirational words. I have it bad! Who would have thought that their actions could cost them their authority with some (me)?
    I have often asked myself why I have such a strong reaction to them. “Lighten up!” I say. But then I realize that accepting them and their behaviour is no different than accepting the behaviour of the elementary school yard bully and approving of it.


  3. says

    Hello Marc and thank you for sharing this enlightening review. I typically don’t read biographies because they usually attempt to make statesmen out of corrupt politicians and saints out of people who were far from it. Not that I want or need a critical hatchet job of a famous person; I just want them to be portrayed honestly by someone who had the opportunity and access to really know them. The world needs imperfect genuises and we should appreciate them for what they are or were, not for what others want them to be.

    Dennis Salazar

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