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May 4, 2021

Steve Jobs, co-founder and visionary leader of Apple, was widely admired for the innovative genius that brought us the iMac, iPhone, iPod, and the iPad, not to mention the ever growing iTunes.

 Legions of management consultants, academics and business leaders extol Jobs’ virtues as a leader. But is it deserved? A large part of being a great leader comes with the anticipation of unexpected problems and a willingness to tackle them. But really, what it all boils down to is people skills and innovation.

 The fluid mindset of a leader is far more important than any rigid practices or principles. Jobs was a complex man full of contradictions, says biographer Leander Kahney. He was an espoused Zen Buddhist which is anti-materialist, yet built the ultimate company that advocates living a technologically materialistic life.

In an age where leadership transparency is encouraged as part of a healthy democratic system, Jobs instilled a culture of secrecy and surveillance in Apple workplaces, complete with video cameras constantly monitoring its engineers, and a “need to know only” system of internal communication.

 To say that Jobs was a micromanager would be an understatement. His autocratic and egotistical style led to his early power struggle with Apple’s board of directors and he left in 1984, only to return in 1997 to build Apple into the global powerhouse it is today. During both stints at Apple, Jobs’ leadership style could be characterized as “carrot and stick,” using praise and flattery, but more often fear and criticism. When Fortune magazine profiled America’s toughest bosses, it said of Jobs, his “inhuman drive for perfection can burn out even the most motivated worker.” Kahney claimed Jobs’ verbal assaults on staff, replete with foul language, were terrifying.

Fortune magazine dubbed him “one of Silicon Valley’s leading egomaniacs.” He wanted to be interwoven in every tiny fibre that formed the backbone of his company, driving it forward and remaining at the forefront of every new venture.

The thing is, CEOs and corporate leaders, are forced to wear many different hats in business. There’s the responsibility to conjure up new ideas, market products or services and myriad of different jobs that must be undertaken.

As a business grows alongside these responsibilities and demands more and more work, delegating tasks to others becomes an tantalizing prospect. With so many balls to juggle, enlisting the help of other staff members to take the load off our back seems like a tempting offer.

For Jobs, delegation wasn’t an option. Of course, it was necessary to a degree, as with any large-scale company requiring an expansive workforce. But even with the groundbreaking advances that Apple has seen since its birthday in 1976, Jobs remained as ingrained in his company as he possibly could right from the get-go.

Claiming Steve Jobs was a great leader smacks more of hero worship than an objective view of what a great organizational leader should be and do. Extolling his virtues to a new generation of up-and-coming leaders would be a serious mistake.

The concern I have, and that it is reflected by other leadership experts, is the faulty cause and effect, and “ends justifies the means” arguments that hold up Jobs as a leader to be emulated.  It goes something like this: It doesn’t matter what kind of boss you are like — meaning abusive — as long as you get results (financial); and as long as you attain your goal (financial results), any methods to get there are okay, including demeaning and overworking people.

The idolization of Jobs’ style of leadership is so counter-intuitive to the general trend of leadership in our society. Authoritarian leaders are not concerned about the will and needs of their followers. They lead primarily through coercion. If there is a vision, the followers must share the leader’s vision. And while clever authoritarian leaders have learned the language of teamwork, collaboration and shared purpose, they still expect absolute obedience. 

Jobs gets his girlfriend pregnant, and then denies that the child is his. He parks in handicapped spaces. He screams at subordinates. He cries like a small child when he does not get his way. He gets stopped for driving a hundred miles an hour, honks angrily at the officer for taking too long to write up the ticket, and then resumes his journey at a hundred miles an hour. He sits in a restaurant and sends his food back three times. He arrives at his hotel suite in New York for press interviews and decides, at 10 P.M., that the piano needs to be repositioned, the strawberries are inadequate, and the flowers are all wrong; he wanted calla lilies. (When his public-relations assistant returns, at midnight, with the right flowers, he tells her that her suit is ‘disgusting.’)”

Of course, shocking behavior is no stranger to the C-Suite. In a 2005 Fast Company article titled “Is Your Boss a Psychopath?,” Alan Deutschman explores two archetypes of aggressive leadership: the psychopath and the narcissist. It’s gripping reading: Henry Ford, for example, “hired thugs to crush union organizers, deployed machine guns at his plants, and stockpiled tear gas. He cheated on his wife with his teenage personal assistant and then had the younger woman marry his chauffeur as a cover.”

The instinctive reaction to this kind of behavior is aversion. Yet Ford was compelling enough to shape the lives not only of his own generation, but of generations to follow. Jobs’ dissatisfaction with the world around him resulted directly in his extraordinary efforts to make it better: cleaner, prettier, more elegant. 

Deutschman cites Michael Maccoby, the author of “The Productive Narcissist,” in explaining how Jobs escapes being a psychopath: “When… Steve Jobs calls someone a bozo, [he’s] not concerned about people's feelings. Productive narcissists see other people as a means toward their ends. But they do have a sense of changing the world -- in their eyes, improving the world. They build their own view of what the world should be and get others recruited to their vision. Psychopaths, in contrast, are only interested in self."

But does the end justify the means? Is the only way to be a visionary to be horrible to the people around you?
The flawed thinking goes like this:

  1. Jobs and Ford were tyrants. 
  1. Jobs and Ford changed the world. 
  1. Therefore, in order to change the world, you must be a tyrant.

The danger in this kind of analysis stems from the confusion between causation and correlation. Are they world-changers because they’re tyrants, or is being a tyrant simply a reflection of a character that looks at the world and sees its current state as unacceptable? I imagine in someone like Jobs there would have existed an extraordinary tension between the world as it is and the world as he imagined it, a massive dissatisfaction with the utter imperfection of our daily lives, and an unbearable need to bring his environment in line with his vision of how things could be.

Jobs and Ford were tyrants because they were visionary, because of their internal dissonance between reality and possibility. If you do not suffer from this dissonance, no amount of bad behavior towards your colleagues will turn you into a visionary. And I believe it’s entirely possible to be a visionary and to be kind.

 And that is the kind of leader to which we can all aspire to be.

Image Source: Getty Images