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?

WELCOME TO A CONVERSATION about “Letters to a Young Entrepreneur”

In Letters to a Young Entrepreneur, I share some of the highlights of my entrepreneurial journey. On this website, I continue to offer reflections on my leadership experiences, and very much welcome your comments, critique and suggestions. Most importantly, I invite you to share your own experiences and insights, as well.

My hope is that through this dialogue we will all benefit from our common entrepreneurial adventure, and perhaps provide some new approaches to the challenges we all face as we embody our dreams.