THE STEVE JOBS PARADOX

On October 5, 2011 Steve Jobs died. When hearing the news I was deeply saddened. Tears came to my eyes, even though I had never met the man. So what caused this emotional response? What touched me to impart such a sense of loss? It was clearly not the loss of a personal relationship, nor the news of a sudden, unexpected tragedy that befell a fellow human being. So what thoughts triggered my sadness? In the end it boils down to the close connection between a person and a product. I love my MacBook Air, my iPhone, my iPad. I also love my Audi, my Bose sound system, my sailboat – yet I cannot imagine “grieving” for their progenitors. And yet I grieve for the person I associate with the Apple products that I cherish.

So I immediately dove into Isaacson’s biography of Steve. I wanted to get closer to the man behind my emotional response. And I came out quite troubled.

I knew something of Steve’s life, of course. It could not be helped having lived in Silicon Valley for the last four decades. In fact, the more I read the more I was struck by how closely “our” paths had touched: my children went to the same middle school and high school as Steve, though a few years later. My professional life as an entrepreneur was impacted by some of the same people that influenced Steve:  Regis McKenna, who in the 70s spent many days with me and my partner Jim Cusumano, musing over how to position our company in what was then a brand new concept; Larry Sonsini, our company’s attorney since the early 80s; Tommy Davis Jr., whose venture firm was an early investor in Apple and also our lead investor in the early 80s. Steve and I even had an affinity for the same little Ryokan in Kyoto — the Tawaraya Inn — one of my favorite spots when I did business in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s. But the Steve who emerged from Isaacson’s book is a very different Steve from my image at that moment when I grieved for his passing. The Steve that emerged raises many questions in my entrepreneurial mind.

First, I want to list the things that I admire, which certainly fit with my idea of what makes a good entrepreneur:

  • His uncompromising belief in quality – inside out
  • His insistence that product comes first, not profit
  • His attitude to never be afraid of cannibalizing your own products; if you do not, someone else will
  • His attitude to leapfrog when you find yourself behind, not just catch up – or give up
  • His belief in cross-skill teams and the intimate participation of all departments — design, hardware, software, content — very anti-silo.
  • His insistence on focusing the company on a few key products
  • His uncanny ability to sense what the market needed well before the market knew it (I love his reference to Henry Ford, who said, — “If I asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, a faster horse!”)
  • His keen sense of pricing of the “consumer” products he created, displayed as early as the illegal “blue box” that he and Steve Wozniak built to make long distance calls for free
  • His sense of aesthetics and simplicity – epitomized for me in the MacBook Air
  • His passionate pursuit of a product vision
  • His stubborn perseverance

Now to the troubling part: his behavior toward others. The picture that emerges from Isaacson’s book is of a person who seems to care only about his immediate agenda, and “used” everyone around him to achieve his goals. Even if only some of what we read is true, it portrays someone who has very little concern for the humanity and dignity of others, unless they serve his purpose. This bothers me deeply: I think it is the wrong template for a good entrepreneur.  In particular, something that really troubles me: he is reported to first dismiss people’s ideas and then resurface them later, without attribution. For me, this is totally unacceptable in a good leader. In this and other examples, he appears to disregard what most of us consider basic standards of behavior in a civilized society –what arrogance!

In my book I write:

“The tension between hubris and humility is one of the most serious personal dilemmas faced by the entrepreneur. Hubris, the point at which self-confidence turns into conceit, can be a trap in which we lose our bearings, with destructive consequences not just for ourselves but also for many others. To keep in balance we need to maintain a spiritual anchor and manifest that core in our moral and ethical behavior.”

I am not sure Steve Jobs ever had any bearings. His own family, when commenting on why he was so “mean” to others, is reported to have said that ““he lacked the filter.” Certainly not a very Zen-like balance. As Isaacson said: “Unfortunately, his Zen training never produced in him a Zen-like calm or inner serenity.”

And yet this complex person was able to tune so directly into the essence of products that we could not imagine before they were in front of us, but once we touched them we would say “of course, we knew it all along!”  This single mindedness raises some powerful questions:

  • Are all extraordinary people so focused that they cannot relate to those around them in any way but the one that serves their focus? Mozart was a genius who left an indelible legacy. From what I gather, he also was not a very nice person, and had the habit of deriding those around him with a vast superiority complex. Perhaps that is not surprising. Mozart was a young genius who was never allowed to grow up in a normal way. Did Jobs have a normal childhood? He was certainly precocious:  at 13 he called Bill Hewlett and landed a summer job! Is it surprising that he never lost the child within–the good, the bad, the immature?
  • Was the price of “strewn bodies” worth the gain of these delightful products that so many of us cherish?
  • Is ruthlessness a desirable trait in the service of a product vision? Isaacson: “The nasty edge to his personality was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him. But it did, at times, serve a purpose.”
  • Jobs was described by many of his co-workers as having a  “distorted reality.” To what extent did this serve the purpose of achieving the seemingly impossible? (I should listen to myself; I suspect some of my colleagues thought I had a distorted reality as I drove our companies to uncharted territory…)
  • How safe is it, in the long run, to have a CEO who does not believe that the rules apply to him? Many companies eventually collapse from this belief, as some have in the last decade…

Apple’s story is perhaps the extreme example of lessons we all should heed:

  • Apple seemed to be a very tense and competitive environment; one might even call it cut throat (certainly they cut the throat of those whom Steve considered to be “B” players.) Could they have succeeded with a more humane executive?
  • I cannot imagine building a company with an attitude that one day derides an idea as “junk” and the next day comes forth with the same idea as if it were that of the lead executive, not giving credit to the person who originally posed the idea. That is revolting to me. Yet, it was a pattern for Jobs. That people tolerated this is amazing. It calls for a re-definition of being genuine…
  • Toward the end of his life, Steve shared with Isaacson some final thoughts, including, “The reason Apple resonates with people is that there is a deep current of humanity in our inventions.” What was Steve’s definition of “humanity?” Did he really understand the concept? Or did he see only a small sliver of what makes us human?

In the end, Jobs was very lucky that he found people who would follow him in spite of his abrasive personality. And the rest of us enjoy reaping the fruits of his idiosyncrasies. I abide my tears upon hearing of his passing, even after reflecting on some of the less-than-commendable traits of this extraordinary and complex individual. I love my Apple products, and hope that they will keep coming, without loss of humanity either in their ultimate manifestation or in the process of their making.

A Brief Post-Script:

It is ironic that the company which inspired Jobs in his early years, Hewlett Packard, was founded and led by two individuals who were the antithesis of Steve. In fact, their management style became the template for many of us who became entrepreneurs: “The HP Way.” Also interesting: HP lost its bearings after its founders were gone. Ominous?

7 thoughts on “THE STEVE JOBS PARADOX

  1. Ricardo, thanks for this excellent post. I read the Isaacson bio and had a similar reaction. (See http://bit.ly/s9DSGt) It’s very difficult to square his success not just as a entrepreneur but as a manager of a large and complex enterprise with the selfish, abusive side of his personality. He parked in handicapped spaces, for goodness sake! It may be that his talents were so extraordinary that those people who stuck with him (and surely many did leave) were willing to accept the whole package.

  2. I still have yet to read the Isaacson book, but it seems to me that in some ways Jobs’ “freedom” from the rules gave him a greater control over the company, which gave Apple a competitive edge over its rivals. It can be difficult for a company like Apple to maintain its agility as it continues to grow. By according one brilliant mind with enormous control of the company, I believe that Apple was able to remain responsive to the change occurring around it. None of the i-products we enjoy today would have existed if it weren’t for Apple’s VP of Industrial Design, Jonathan Ive. Ive’s success was partly due to his nearly universal control over Apple’s Industrial Design division, given to him by the “all-powerful” Steve Jobs.

  3. Ric

    Thanks for pointing me to your fine post on Steve Jobs. I’m sure you did so wondering if I had seen evidence of his behavior in my dealings with Apple.

    Certainly, I “felt” his style when I walked in Apple’s door. What you see as “good” and also what you identify as “troubling” were talked about in meetings or over a beer later on. His passion and his quirks translated into the organization – and were well understood.

    We greatly admire what Jobs did for us, the users of the his products, and for his company. His success in transforming many industries is equally remarkable. Edison may be the only other person who achieved as much. But, you ask, did Jobs do it in the true spirit of an entrepreneur?

    Many years ago (circa 1990 I’d guess) someone aired the story about Steve and his NeXT organization. They made his style the sub-topic and his people discussed it openly as the cameras rolled in his offices. I found that to be refreshing – and certainly interesting TV. The point is that his quirks were well known – not a new revelation from the biography.

    The side of Steve that we might find objectionable was part of the package you “bought into” if you worked there (credit given to Marc Gunther’s comment). Specifically, if Steve blatantly took credit for another’s idea as the author suggests, it would not have been a surprise either. That would not make it ethical, in our eyes, but would not be a secret either. BTW, idea evolution is an interesting issue – a topic for another day.

    I completely get your point about his representing the “wrong template for a good entrepreneur”. He was a polarizing individual, not one to employ a collaborative management style. But, let’s forgive Steve for what is troubling, praise him for the accomplishments and employ those traits we admire. His is a phenomenal story.

  4. I read you heartfelt blog on Steve, and the various responses. As I think I mentioned to you before, I wrote a special case study on Steve for my class at Princeton to explore exactly the questions you raise in your blog. I wrote the case from the perspective of Steve Jobs when things were the blackest, around 1994, when Disney shut down production of Toy Story and Steve was almost out of money. Having read all the books about Steve, I now come away with the following conclusions:

    1. Steve was a very effective entrepreneurial leader in the early days of Apple, when he and Wozniak were constantly arguing about the features of the Apple II. Steve won some arguments and lost many with Wozniak, but each argument was ended with exactly the right brilliant decision for the design. During those years Steve delegated to others. He hired and then listened to Markkula, and fought but still listened to Scott. He let Holt do his thing. He was arrogant, but he listened and prospered.

    2. He no longer listened once Apple was successful and he wanted to prove that he could lead the design of a great computer. What he did not listen to from his Macintosh team ultimately made the first Mac a flop. He did not listen at NeXt where he designed the exact same computer as the Mac, only better looking, but with exactly the same faults. Pretty lousy leadership!

    3. But he listened to the Pixar team, at least when they did not use his whiteboard. He deffered to their judgement, and avoided making big mistakes that would have sunk the company.

    4. He also clearly got more astute about how to build his team after he got married to a wife that stood her ground and produced a beautiful family.

    5. So when he came back to Apple he actually was a leader again. He hired the absolute best people on the planet and he let them do what they were good at! Yes, he took too much of the credit; yes, he occasionally lost his temper with them, but he never broke the bond of trust with his executive team.

    6. And his leadership blossomed when he figured out how to ask questions and let others provide the answers. He had changed.

    Of course, he wasn’t the leader for all men. He could only lead the already brilliant who were so confident in their abilities (like Wozniak had been with designing the Apple II) that they could work at his level and create together.

    I have found the there are “horses for courses” and Jobs’ leadership style only worked on the already brilliant – and it only existed when he was willing to listen and delegate.

  5. Great Post Ric,

    I just finished the biography and refrained from reading your blog post until I had completed Isaacson’s book.

    I won’t repeat what others have already pointed out. Rather, I’ll just add my two cents.

    * I too couldn’t help but be fascinated by all the coincidences having lived in the Silicon Valley since 1981. I didn’t know the players personally but certainly knew them all by reputation. I lived through all the highlights. I knew all the local references as they were in my backyard in real time.

    * As Roger pointed out everyone who worked for Steve knew about his explosive and ‘total shit’/’brilliant’ style. With hundred’s of opportunities for high tech work nobody was forced to work at Apple.

    * He certainly did mature as a leader, but it was troubling to me also that he never bothered to soften his approach. He lacked grace. He was not a gracious man. Ric, I loved the way you contrasted his style to the style of Hewlett and Packard – two very gracious men.

    * I currently own my 7th or 8th different Mac (since 1989). I have an iPhone and iPad. I love Apple products … although …

    * I absolutely hated MobileMe and found it impossible to work with. I found another ‘cloud’ solution so I don’t know if, or when, I’ll be willing to even give iCloud a chance.

    * When I read that he fired the guy responsible for MobileMe in front of the entire group I thought it was cruel and unnecessary. But it made me think about all the screw ups that occur in government and some other businesses where individuals are not held accountable for their results … or quietly moved to another job. So I admired his commitment to the product and the business as a whole.

    * My guess is Apple will continue for several years at a high level but will eventually turn ‘ordinary’ and suffer the same fate as HP did after their founders left … and ‘managers’ took over and the original spirit died.

    In conclusion, was Steve Jobs brilliant? Absolutely. Did he make the world a better place? For sure. Was he a gracious person? No. Was he an evil person? I don’t believe so. Do I admire his accomplishments tremendously? Yes.

    And finally, having worked for you Ric from 1981 to 1987, I found you to be extremely driven, singularly focused, uncompromising in your pursuit of building a world-class business … but always extremely gracious.

  6. You did a great job in your blog and you captured most of the thoughts, feelings and the emotional changes that I went through as I read Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.Here are a few of the additional thoughts that ran through my mind and my heart as I have just completed the book today.

    Does the “end really justify the means”? Yes, I love my iPod, my iPad, my iPad2 and my iPhone. They are by far the most useful, user friendly and beautiful electronic devices that I’ve ever had. They have changed my life in so many ways and they bring me endless hours of enjoyment and education. But does that mean the pain Steve caused others in the process of creating these wonderful devices should be overlooked? Perhaps he “knew” from an early age that he would not be here long. Therefore to him the end justified his means.

    Sometimes “bad people can create good products.” I think that was the case in regards to Steve. I think he behaved poorly as a result of his own internal demons. His internal pain made him very abusive to just about everyone he encountered. And I mean everyone, his family, his friends, his colleagues, his business partners, his doctors, his nurses and anyone that he encountered when he was in his abusive and dark place. I don’t believe that we should be judgmental in regards to anyone, even Steve, but at the same time we should not deny the fact that he inflected a lot of abuse and unnecessary pain on others. We have to be careful not to make excuses for bad behavior just because we come to expect it from someone. If we go down that path the next thing we will find ourselves doing is blaming ourselves for someone else’s abusive behavior towards us.

    I am reminded of the story “The Emperor has no Clothes.” If the book described Steve’s behaviors even 80% accurately it still would have been a huge problem for anyone else. It was as if the people around Steve gave up on telling him that he had no clothes on. When in fact not only did he not have any clothes on, he also stank and needed to take a bath.

    If you talk to the people that have worked with me over the years and you ask them what is it like to work with Willie, most of them, if not all of them, would say that I am not a judgmental person and that I practice forgiveness and acceptance of others. So my goal is not to judge Steve but to merely avoid making excuses for what he has clearly demonstrated as abusive behavior.

    When my friends ask me if they should read the biography of Steve Jobs, I tell them they should not. I make this recommendation because they are like me and they love their Apple products and they carry a high opinion of Steve Jobs. Therefore what would be the point of having them read the biography which would only cause them to have the same emotional letdown that I had. I would rather have them enjoy their Apple products because they are some of the best in the world. And Steve was a visionary that saw what could be. And he made innovative products that made his vision a reality for everyone to enjoy.

    I am closing this chapter on Steve Jobs and opening a new one in which I will continue to enjoy my Apple products and I will continue to affirm Apple’s success because they have a history of getting it right for the consumer.

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