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The paradox of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs is a name that comes up a lot when talking to businesspeople, especially in the technology industry. His ideas, his background, his companies, their products, and his personal style are intertwined in the folklore of tech. I have no idea whether most of it is fiction or not, and I write this with apologies to Mr. Jobs for using him as shorthand. I have never met him, and my point here has nothing to do with him personally.

What I want to discuss is the behavior of people who invoke the myth of Steve Jobs. In my (entirely subjective) experience, it seems to me that there is a pattern which comes up again and again: People seem to want to discuss and emulate the worst of his alleged qualities.

Jobs has been characterized as abusive to his employees, dismissive of his business partners, harshly critical of mistakes, punishingly secretive, and otherwise extremely difficult to work with. Somehow, it is these qualities which are put forward as worthy of discussion, inspiration and emulation. Is this a simple case of confusing correlation with causation? Do people believe that Steve Jobs is successful because of these traits? Perhaps it is a way of coping with one’s own character flaws: if Jobs can “get away” with such misbehavior, then perhaps we can be excused from trying to improve ourselves. Or is there something more subtle going on here? Maybe this observation is an effect of my own cognitive biases, as it is only anecdotal.

As with any successful person, Jobs surely has qualities and techniques which are worthy of study, and perhaps even emulation. Although direct comparison can be problematic, luminaries like Jobs can provide valuable inspiration. I’d just like to hear more about what they’re doing right.

Perhaps this is an argument for drawing inspiration from people you know personally, rather than from second-hand or fictitious accounts of someone else’s life. I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with many different people, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and style. I’ve seen those characteristics first-hand, so I also have the context to understand why they were successful in particular situations. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about leadership, it’s that it’s highly context-sensitive: what worked well in one situation can be disastrous in another. Is your company really that much like Apple? Probably not.

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Written by Matt Zimmerman

October 3, 2010 at 17:33

Posted in Uncategorized

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8 Responses

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  1. When you mention the way he treats employees, I immediately think back to the Pirates of Silicon Valley movie where he is portrayed at yelling at people for not meeting deatlines, making them work harder and grilling people at interviews.

    I don’t see that as a ‘quality’ (for lack of better word) as much as I see it a symptom. I think Steve Jobs is someone who cares deeply about getting things right, when he has a vision and feels inspired he seems to be compelled to bring that across to others, and I think with that comes lots of frustration. When people like that yell at me or get impatient, I don’t take it personally, I try to see things their way.

    Lack of caring is a big reason for many products to be under average and mediocre, like most cell phones have become pretty much until the iPhone became a big hit. I think that he’s rudeness, impatience and passion are symptoms of caring, not a means in itself.

    That’s just my view on it :)

    Jonathan Carter

    October 6, 2010 at 13:54

    • That may be the origin of such behavior, indeed, but it’s a pretty twisted way to demonstrate caring. I know plenty of people who care deeply and passionately about doing great work, and do so without abusing other people.

      Matt Zimmerman

      October 6, 2010 at 15:08

      • Indeed! I meant to explain the behaviour, rather than justify it.

        Jonathan Carter

        October 6, 2010 at 16:31

  2. I think it has more to do with his ability to inspire people. If he can make you believe that you can make “insanely great things” or a “dent to the universe” if you like. You will feel inspired and forget the hard difficult moments.
    So. I do not think that he is great because of the flaws you mentioned, but rather despite of the same.

    Regards,
    Björn Sveinbjörnsson
    Lund
    Sweden

    Björn Sveinbjörnsson

    October 6, 2010 at 15:12

  3. Watch this ted talk at http://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action.html and it will make more sense. I mean just their think different campaign was brilliant because it shows leaders who sought out the why.

    Eric Pritchett

    October 6, 2010 at 16:13

  4. Same thing happens when people try to be as unpleasant as Linus thinking it will make them great programmers.

    Simon

    October 6, 2010 at 18:33

    • Great example. I feel the same way about that case, especially when the Linux kernel is held up as a model open source project. It has been very successful, but NOT because its mailing list and some prominent developers are known for their hostility.

      Matt Zimmerman

      October 6, 2010 at 18:37

  5. IMHO, Jobs should be remembered as the greatest salesmen ever. Only he could manipulate the media to help him sell a phone w/o copy paste, no multitasking etc etc. Then to do it again with the ipad; no multitasking, no camera, no industry connections, (ala usb) and of course no flash.

    Amazing just thinking about it.

    Monty

    October 8, 2010 at 03:06


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