My post last month about Steve Jobs drew more comments than anything I’ve written about so far at The Wayward Journey. Upon reflection, it’s hard to think of another individual who so profoundly shaped the digital age. But it’s equally difficult—perhaps impossible—to understand and reconcile the contradictory and negative aspects of Jobs’ personality.
Reading all of the accolades heaped on Jobs last October when he succumbed to cancer, you would think that he was a candidate for sainthood. As The New York Times breathlessly reported in its obituary, “Tributes to Mr. Jobs flowed quickly on Wednesday evening, in formal statements and in the flow of social networks, with President Obama, technology industry leaders and legions of Apple fans weighing in.”
Even Jobs’ long-time nemesis, Bill Gates, was quoted as saying, “For those of us lucky enough to get to work with Steve, it’s been an insanely great honor. I will miss Steve immensely.”
Apple itself intoned, “Apple has lost a visionary and creative genius, and the world has lost an amazing human being.”
We know from Walter Isaacson’s biography that there was a dark side to Jobs’ incessant quest for perfection.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Jobs’ behavior was the way he treated his family and friends, Apple employees, board members and competitors. Whether it was outright rejection, belittling, conniving, sheer rudeness or even throwing temper tantrums when he didn’t get his way, the picture of Jobs is not a pleasant one.
For someone who exercised so much control and discipline over every aspect of Apple’s brand and products—and make no mistake, that was one of Jobs’ keys to success—it is incredible how undisciplined, uncaring and unfeeling he could be.
Particularly bizarre is the juxtaposition of Jobs’ Zen approach to design, his appreciation of simple, elegant beauty, his penchant for “getting things right,” with the brutal, selfish way he dealt with people. Someone that smart, that committed to perfection, surely had to be aware of how wrong he was in treating others.
So was Steve Jobs’ dark side a blemish on an otherwise great man? Or was it a serious character flaw that compels us to reassess our love affair of all things Apple?
It seems that our society has more tolerance than it should for successful business leaders with flaws. Apple just had its best quarter ever, with a record $13.1 billion in profits. Yes, that’s b as in billion. So if you’re an Apple stockholder, you’re probably thinking, “Bring on the flaws.” But if you’ve ever been the victim of bullying and emotional abuse, you won’t see much to celebrate in Jobs’ life. Rather, you’re left with a feeling of sadness and shame for what could have been.
Jobs’ death at age 56 at the height of his power and creativity seems nearly Faustian. His story certainly raises troubling questions about the responsibilities of leadership—but just as troubling is the enabling of friends, coworkers, employees and consumers.
Writing about Jobs in the Huffington Post last fall, Joel Drucker observed, “The bigger topic is our willingness to turn a blind eye to the Golden Rule in the face of power, charisma and the leverage held by those who sign our paychecks.”
What is the price of admission to work at an “insanely great” company? Did Jobs’ means justify his ends? How complicit are we when we continue to buy Apple products and remain loyal fans?
Anyone who’s watched the film “The Social Network” about Mark Zuckerberg and read Isaacson’s biography of Jobs can’t help but see the dark parallels between these two titans of Silicon Valley. And yet we all spend hours each day on Facebook.
Drucker concludes that he will continue to use Apple products. I have no plans to give up my iMac. In fact, I wrote this post on it. That is the irony and complexity of the Jobs legacy. “Insanely great” is probably as good a summation of Jobs as we’re going to get. While we debate the ethics of Jobs’ behavior, we eagerly await the arrival of the iPad 3.