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Dan Mulhern Headshot

What Steve Jobs Got Wrong -- and How You Can Get It Right

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Two things evoke anger in me in leadership theory and in leadership life. I despise lies (a topic for another day). And I will always resist the jerk-as-leader and those who apologize for him. By jerk, I mean the person whose ego is chronically inflated, who acts as if their opinion is worth more than others', and perhaps most important, who overtly or covertly demeans other people. We're all fallible and hurt others, sometimes even intentionally. But any account that says you can be a great leader and not accept responsibility and struggle with the tendency to be a jerk is simply wrong. If you justify the jerk -- in your dad, boss, spouse, CEO, among your team, or worse, in yourself -- I implore you to think again.

Walter Isaacson's acclaimed biography Steve Jobs has refueled the debate about jerks in management. Isaacson, in this month's Harvard Business Review, comes to the defense of Jobs as "great man," and rejects those who take his biography as grounds for concluding otherwise. In Isaacson's alliterative explication: "His petulance and impatience were part and parcel of his perfectionism."

In his view, because Jobs had great products and accomplishments in mind there almost had to be collateral damage. He marshals two types of evidence to defend his claim. Apple's extraordinary leadership -- in a literal sense -- revolutionized seven different industries. How can you not say he was an amazing leader? Second, the biographer challenged Jobs about his rough style and Jobs replied "Look at the results... These are all smart people I work with, and any of them could get a top job at another place if they were truly feeling brutalized. But they don't."

The success of Apple is incontrovertible. It is utterly astounding. And, as Isaacson persuasively argues, it was Jobs' personal passion for perfection that was at the core of that culture. Remove his personal drive and you lose not only remarkable product breakthroughs but the culture that relentlessly developed great products. Again, awesome. I would go further to say that perhaps the greatest reason people were so loyal to Apple/Jobs was the repeated feeling of winning, of delivering, of innovating. It was worth the suffering and public humiliation that Jobs doled out and openly admitted was his style. So, why not cut him slack, and just accept there are always downsides to results-focused leadership styles?

Two reasons. First, high standards -- even perfectionism -- are not inconsistent with respecting people as people. You can care for people and therefore set a high bar, and you can lead by example demanding superlatives of yourself. You can and should reject poor work (but not workers); and at some point you can and should fire poor workers (yet not humiliate them as as people). Having loyal workers who are not "truly feeling brutalized" is hardly proof that it's okay to be a jerk. The truth is we know people stay with abusers, but that doesn't make the abusers' behaviors justified. The notion that people sometimes need to get beat up or publicly embarrassed to really perform at their best is a wrong-headed idea made up by jerks.

Finally, I would suggest that Jobs' own philosophy must incline us towards more humane business leadership. If you would pursue perfection in products, then why not in how you deal with people? How does not "truly feeling brutalized" stack up on the perfection scale? Why are people exempt from the drive for elegance, simplicity, and perfection. Lastly, Isaacson credits Jobs' experience sitting in Zen meditation with giving him extraordinary focus and discipline. Yet it seems elemental (in my reading and experience with meditation) that meditation generates presence of mind, such that if you experienced the urge to take someone's head off, you could choose not to be enslaved to that "instinct" of perfectionism. With self-discipline you can still be honest, corrective, high-bar setting yet not fire hose the person whose efforts have inflamed you.

Deal with your inner-jerk to lead with your best-self!

Cross-posted at the Everyday Leadership blog.