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.