By James Kwak
At least, that’s the impression I get from reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, which I finally finished this weekend. It’s not a particularly compelling read; it basically marches through the stages of his professional life, which is already the subject of legend, so there isn’t much suspense. I fear that it will inspire a new generation of corporate executives to imitate all of Jobs’s personal shortcomings—but without his genius.
The picture you get from the book is basically that Steve Jobs acted like a five-year-old for his whole life. He could be wrong about some basic, uncontroversial fact yet insist stubbornly that he was right. He divided the world into things that were great and things that were terrible, and his classifications could be arbitrary. He was an obnoxiously picky eater, constantly complaining about his food and sending it back. He threw epic tantrums that only a CEO (or a five-year-old) could get away with.
Some of his flaws, however, took more self-deception than a five-year-old is capable of. For example, when he came back to Apple in the late 1990s, he insisted he wasn’t in it for the money and took the famous $1 salary. When the board offered him stock, he said he would rather have an airplane. The board gave him a Gulfstream V and 14 million options—and Jobs insisted on 20 million (which he got). When the stock market crashed, he got them repriced (leading to the Apple backdating scandal), and when the stock price kept falling, he eventually traded them in for an outright stock grant. Now, this is the behavior you expect from corporate CEOs, but it’s a bit galling coming from someone who insisted, very publicly, that he didn’t care about money.
For a similar example, Jobs refused to have a dedicated CEO parking spot at Apple headquarters—but he regularly parked in handicapped spots. What kind of a person does that?
But, of course, the results speak for themselves. And Isaacson’s biography displays some of the traits that made Jobs such a successful businessman. He could have immense personal charm, when he wanted to. As Steve Wozniak said, “Steve could call up people he didn’t know and make them do things.” That ability, to get on the phone and talk someone else into do something that isn’t in her interests, is what I consider the most important skill in business.
Jobs was also incredibly opinionated about his products, and his opinions were usually right. He was a compulsive micro-manager who almost always got his way, and the result is the world of personal computing we see around us, from touchscreen phones to the rounded windows in desktop operating systems.
What you don’t see is any of the conventional management mumbo-jumbo that big-company CEOs spout to justify their fortunes—nothing about focusing on people, mentoring, creating a supportive work environment, giving people freedom but making them accountable, leading by following, etc. As I’ve said before, Steve Jobs violated just about every rule of generic company management. He succeeded because he had great product instincts, he was incredibly convincing, he was inspiring enough to get some great people to work for him, and he was a little bit crazy. In other words, he was the farthest thing you could find from the generic corporate executives who rule most of the business world.
23 thoughts on “My Daughter Will Be CEO of the World’s Most Valuable Company Someday”
I thought Isaacson’s book was very good. Jobs certainly was unique and not a nice person. The compelling fact however is his tantrums and obsessions were almost always geared towards perfection in his products. I’ve known plenty of managers who were equally immature and tyrannical but without Jobs’ genius; their tantrums typically are more defensive and ego driven and ultimately destructive. Jobs “way” certainly isn’t the only way to be successful (thankfully); I would hate the takeaway to be “Be a jerk and you’ll be rich!”, but the world is a better place for his having been here.
This “benevolent dictator” model is pretty typical of technology leaders: Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Mark Shuttleworth, and back in the day, Clive Sinclair, Jack Tramiel, Alan Sugar. I’m surprised people see Jobs as somehow “unique”, because everyone has a unique personality. The common factor in these leaders is how they impose their larger-than-life personality on their particular project.
How about Jobs just got lucky being in places/ with people that tolerated dictatorship? I’m guessing for the average company/ CEO imitating Jobs would lead to disaster.
TBH, like you, I found the Isaacson book to be very meh and unlike you, I didn’t actually finish the book. A much better AAPL book is Lashinsky’s Inside Apple.
On some of the other commentors here, is Jobs a “benevolent dictator” or just a dictator? While people like Torvalds controlled the Linux kernel development (I think he still leads a core group of people who can write to the kernel source code), he does allow dissension and doesn’t grip Linux as much as Jobs did with Apple.
There are many examples throughout high-tech of democratic and autocratic leadership styles. Many of the successful companies of the 2nd technology era (following IBM) – HP, Tektronix, etc. had a consensual managment style and encouraged individual “dreaming”, and this worked when the task at hand was more research-driven than applied – and, more importantly, when the pace of innovation was not so inhumanly quick nor the effort required exceeding one or two clever individuals and a few assistants. The previous generation did its work well in laying the foundations of today’s insanely fast paced tech world. But more importantly, it’s now been noted that the most sucessful companies are those that make mistakes (and correct them) the fastest. This involves not brainstorming, but brutal dissection and critiquing of ideas in a highly interconnected, immersive work environment of the large teams now required for implementation. Gentle nudging and urging has given way by necessity (it seems) to ruthless culling, alas.
Of the current generation of tech leaders, I respect the accomplishments of Jobs and Larry Ellison (of Oracle), but not their personal style nor their disinterest in societal matters. And I wouldn’t want to be a woman working for either. Bill Gates, by contrast, found his social conscience. Perhaps it was his do-gooder Dad’s influence. Perhaps it was Melinda’s. Perhaps he just grew up and realized that making the next really cool thing wasn’t as important as making it possible for the next generation to succeed.
Oregano, “But more importantly, it’s now been noted that the most sucessful companies are those that make mistakes (and correct them) the fastest. This involves not brainstorming, but brutal dissection and critiquing of ideas in a highly interconnected, immersive work environment of the large teams now required for implementation.”
Apollo 13 would have never made it back to earth because the person who dared to say, “Houston we have a problem.” is the first person *culled*. And I’m talking about people not signing off on a manufacturing batch because they saw that there was broken glass in the product.
When whistle-blowers get their own R&D corps geared for REAL life-maintenance progress, the *economy* will have turned. Still a guns vs. butter situation – and on home ground it means turning off the BILLIONS to the USELESS apparatus of spying and stalking and stealing that is the erection of The Patriot Act.
NORMAL human minds have left the Matrix. Next up, dismantling it just like property ownership rights…
I would love to see a book on the way Jobs (or a few other super-achievers) organized his thoughts in general. How he put isolated ideas into conceptual frameworks, how he assigned (and adjusted) priority rankings of these concepts (over time, situationally) and how he perceived evidence for and against the fitness of these frameworks.
He couldn’t have pissed off everyone, so he had learned whom to cultivate, whom he could ignore and even antagonize.
Jobs made mistakes long the way, but somehow his ego allowed him to take in information that challenged his views and then to adjust, while at other times his confidence/ego let him be resolute well past the point where other people would have changed course or run for the hills.
The most professionally successful people I know are very disciplined about creating a map of their world and fitting new ideas quickly into that map. It lets them make decisions more quickly, deal with greater complexity than most can handle and know which tasks to delegate, which to do themselves, which to drop altogether (even if for some, the dropped ones include everything having to do with family).
I have already let Mr. Jobs “have it” in past posts, so I’m going to let that one go. Suffice to say, I think Mr. Jobs was lacking in morals, was a liar, and a hypocrite of the highest order. The FOXXCON situation was what bothered me the most, as he knew exactly what was going on, and pooh-poohed media questions, saying “they have a pool for swimming at the factory”. It was a huge LIE and Mr. Jobs knew that (not the existence of the pool but the way the workers were treated and the laughable vision of Chi. nese countryside laborers playing in a pool during work). Only an extremely self-centered American raised and spoiled in an affluent family could so easily brush off the hard reality Chi. nese villagers face when given the choice of those jobs or going back to their village.
I haven’t read Mr. Isaacson’s book but had some good rundowns from someone who read it cover to cover. I think Mr. Isaacson did something very rare in that he got close access to a narcissist and borderline megalomaniac and ended up getting some of the more negative aspects. Was Mr. Isaacson a little too kind?? I think some reviewers have been way too harsh on Mr. Isaacson from what I get out of it. I don’t think anyone could have gotten the close access to Mr. Jobs and gotten as many of the worts published like Mr. Isaacson. Remember this is coming from someone (me) with strong dislike of Mr. Jobs. So, I applaud Mr. Isaacson as I feel he’s done “a man’s job” on the deal.
Let’s see how can I say this in my usual degenerate (but accurate) style?? Steve Jobs was a c*nt…. a major c*nt…. but as CEO of a tech company, if we leave out morals and ethics from the metrics of the equation, Mr. Jobs was the best, and 20 light years ahead of compatriots Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer.
@Annie: by “culling” I was not referring to people – rather, ideas. The best groups are ruthless in culling ideas that have flaws, but they rely upon trust and respect between the members of the teams to permit the culling process. If management doesn’t create a supportive environment for its creative team, the whole process fails and employees leave. Apollo 13 got back precisely because the team that built it and flew it had a tremendous respect for each other and a shared purpose supported and respected by management that allowed them to engage in this culling process quickly, stunningly effectively, and without personal animus. Jobs, like a lot of autodidacts, was pointlessly brutal towards his employees, and that was part of his defective personality – as James put it, “he behaved like a 5 year old all his life”. Why anyone would work in that Jim Jones environment is beyond me, but then I got out…
I forgot to add, I agree that Mr. Kwak’s lineage will do quite well in the civic and/or private and/or both career of her choosing. I’m definitely not shorting any stock with the name Kwak in it. Let’s hope she puts her mind on something patriotic like deficit reduction or litigation of natural gas fracking.
Jobs never recognized the contributions of the people who were the discoverers of the *facts* that he needed to create the magic gizmos he envisioned. The second Jobs heard a fact, it was became HIS brain fart, his genius.
And not for a second should anyone believe that without Jobs this planet would have a lack of magic gizmos with which to entertain ourselves. Of course, the entire CIVILIZATION that existed in this time and place in USA in which Jobs could be such a gizmo king was also just a *thing* in his mind, I guess?
Funny how such a picky eater never entertained a hobby like cooking for himself….who knows what kind of gizmos he could have invented as an amateur Chef! Something that could have ended world hunger, no doubt!
Job’s spirit is exceeded only by his and Apple’s efforts to evade paying taxes to the country and the state that gave them the opportunity, culture and educational base to build a successful business. Someone needs to call corporate America out for moving intellectual property, key functions and mail-drops to tax havens. Apple’s riches owe much to such unpatriotic, selfish and exploitive practices. Sure, the guy was brilliant in many ways, but why couldn’t he understand how his business practices undercut the very economy and culture that gave him the opportunity for success. Ultimately, many of his actions are shameful.
I wonder if some of his approaches to overworking employees has spilled into today’s culture, or was that competition of Manuel Labor going to occur with him or not? His products will have been found to make life more convenient for humans, but certainly not more comfortable. And you would expect nothing less from a person who has premonitions of dying early, all I ever wanted to do was out live all my friends, no matter their status in life. I tend to believe Mr Kawks daughter will be a future orphan like so many others caught off guard when the Sudden Aging Disease arrives unannounced.
I think there are parallels between Jobs and Thomas Edison. What is often missed about Jobs is that people followed him because he was going somewhere worth going. Jobs was an autocratic jerk, sure. But, for its employees, Apple was and remains a better place to work than most major corporations.
This, obviously, does not apply to Foxconn employees. But Foxconn is not only Apple’s sin: they manufacture for many firms, worldwide.
The graphical user interface operating system, and mouse? Invented at the Xerox Palo Alto Research center. Jobs was shrewd enough to seize the potential of those for personal computers, while Xerox was a stagnate, moribund big corporation. Just like how IBM legitimized the PC for the business use market, and then handed the whole industry to Microsoft, who also had very limited vision, and lack of true innovation.
The IPod, IPhone, and the Ipad are all reminiscent of Sony during it’s heyday. Combining innovative design, sleek packaging, high quality and the newest technology, Sony was the standard for the best electronic consumer products. Apple is following the same business plan, and they did not invent that either.
@oregano – Jim Jones-ing is all that is going on now (Emergency Managers) – without the civil infrastructure that Jobs st up business in, what *ideas* are going to get culled now? Is this a good idea – taking away the basic human right for people to make their lives less miserable through honest work….?
About 4 and a half minutes in…
Maybe bring back Detroit’s most famous son – Prince of Blackwater – now that democracy has been removed?
Jon, like Edison, Jobs’s great strengths were marketing and design, not basic research. And these do count.
Well having quite a bit of experience in the bowels of big business:
“focusing on people, mentoring, creating a supportive work environment, giving people freedom but making them accountable”
I can say much of this truly is “mumbo jumbo”. That is, all these are are “words”, words that don’t have much impact on how companies are really run despite any mantra by which they are repeated.
In any case, is the moral of this story that the world should be run like Steve Jobs did? I don’t think that’s what you’re saying, but to some extent that is sort of the unfortunate takeaway – that companies run like royalty are better than those that might espouse the touchy-feely “supportive work environment”.
Again, I don’t think that is your intention.
In the end, as others have said, I think there’s a lot of luck involved. However that leaves the question – what is the right way to run a company in this day and age?
What is that word for people who fall in love with an *object*…? :-))
Are you all denying that you have funded the creation of a parallel universe (The Matrix) in which people are things and corporations are people?
Turn it all into a certain kind of *ash* so that the *god particle* is revealed?
“WIESEL: Not even an animal, but an object. Because what they tried to do- you know, I believe, in general, they had a theory. They really wanted to create a universe parallel to our own. They wanted to reinvent creation. And in that universe, in that creation, a new language was invented, a new attitude towards human being, a new God. An S.S. man was God. We had no right to look at an S.S. man in the face, because you cannot look into God’s face and remain alive. And therefore, in their concept of the universe, we were subhuman, unworthy of living. So what did they do? They shrank everything. Let’s say, from the universe, we went to a country and a country to a town, from a town to a street, from a street to an apartment, apartment to a room, from the room to the cellar, from the cellar to the train. It’s always smaller and smaller — from the train to the gas chamber. And then the person, who was first a person, became a prisoner, and the prisoner became a number.
MOYERS: And the number became an ash.”
once again, some one who completly mis understands Jobs and what he did.
All of the stuff mentioned in the article is irrelevant, and much is wrong (picky on details…often right; apple products are full of problems that would sink another company; the terrible powercords on macs a few years ago, non replaceable batterys in gen I ipods, etc etc)
so, what did jobs do :?
He understood that *simple* is valuable and important, and that people value things that make life easier; we are, as humans, always looking for a way to cut thru the grass.
the ipod was not a success cause of the thumwheel (any other company would have been trashed) or the software (ok, but not great) or the hardware (ditto) but for the *simple* idea: make it easy to download music.
and when you understand that simple is praise, then you understand jobs.
“he was the farthest thing you could find from the generic corporate executives who rule most of the business world”
Business schools teach people how to manage places like the Post Office. They don’t teach you how to create organizations to develop great products.
Many living losers talk non-sense about a dead legend.
Comments are closed.