In the weeks after the death of Steve Jobs, I became a little concerned about the many fawning tributes to Steve Jobs. Everywhere I turned there was another story about his great leadership. It’s not that I dislike Apple products (I own an iPhone and love it, in a zombie apocalypse I would take it with me in hopes there was an app for how to kill zombies) or that I think Steve Jobs was a bad business man or lacked vision. In fact, I believe Steve Jobs is one of the greatest technical and marketing visionaries ever. The day after his death was announced I posted a video of what is probably the best commencement speech I’ve ever heard.
The problem I have with the fawning over Steve Jobs is pretty simple to lay out:
Steve Jobs was not exactly a “nice” person. He was known to frequently berate employee’s and vendors that he worked with. In fact he even berated the smoothie lady at Whole Foods, come on! The lady who makes your smoothie?
If you Google the terms “Steve Jobs” and “a**hole”, you get an astounding 3,470,000 results! Googling “Mark Zuckerberg” and “a**hole” returns 149,000 results and Googling “Steve Ballmer” and “a**hole”, returns 210,000 results. To get a quick overview of the various jerk tendencies he exhibited check out this article from Business Insider.
Steve Jobs was such a genius and visionary that many people probably looked the other way or just wrote it off as the cost of doing business with Apple. Geniuses across time have been known to be temperamental and moody and there can be some limited virtues to working with jerks, as Bob Sutton explains in chapter six of his excellent book the The No Asshole Rule.
My concern is that people reading about Steve Jobs will overlook or make excuses for his behavior or think that it is okay to act that way because it benefits technology and people who use technology. I’m throwing the yellow penalty flag on that. Frankly, many of the things Steve Jobs did would not fly at most companies, he flouted all of the “management rules” and was successful at it, but that is because he was an extraordinary person and could get away with it, most of us can’t and shouldn’t try his methods.
Steve Jobs was a tough business man and I probably would have fired the guy who rolled out MobileMe too (I wouldn’t do in front of a group though), but I don’t think we should be idolizing him as a model for leadership. I’m not sure Steve Jobs would want us to either.