Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The dark side of Steve Jobs (updated)

The Story of Steve Jobs: An Inspiration or a Cautionary Tale?, article.
Jobs has been dead for nearly a year, but the biography about him is still a best seller. Indeed, his life story has emerged as an odd sort of holy scripture for entrepreneurs—a gospel and an antigospel at the same time. To some, Jobs’ life has revealed the importance of sticking firmly to one’s vision and goals, no matter the psychic toll on employees or business associates. To others, Jobs serves as a cautionary tale, a man who changed the world but at the price of alienating almost everyone around him.

Me, I'm sort of stuck in the middle of the Steve Jobs biography, just because I find it hard to stomach much more of the acrid, distasteful, unnecessary rudeness and bile which was Job's main output on a personal level.

Many see it as a necessary part of the power and compromise-free way Jobs ran things. But I will claim that it is virtually never necessary to be rude or unpleasant. Many of the greatest leaders in the world are unfailingly polite and pleasant. You are dealing with adults who understand the language. If you tell them in clear words what is wrong, they will understand. there is no reason to include shouting, personal insults, or words like shit and shithead.

Being impolite, much less being so dramatically, continually, and unapologetically, is not a minor matter compared to business accomplishments, it is a major failing as a human, and unnecessary.
It's even bad for business. Treating people like shit immediately doubles the problems you will have with them, and the numbers you will lose.

Ken Evoy (sitesell.com), one of the most successful marketing gurus on the web, wrote to me:

I've met many leaders in the toy business and in the Internet.
Personalities vary widely.  BUT...
The most common single unifying character feature is vision and the ability to transmit it such that it permeates the company, both bottom-up and top-down.
Everything else? Optional. Obviously, Jobs' vision and absolute insistence on the highest levels of work "allowed him to get away" with behavior that many talented people would normally not tolerate.  
We once partnered, in toys (pre-www), with a company who had grown from nothing to a few hundred million dollars in 5 years.  Brilliant marketer, but he was a screamer.
He screamed at at least one person, in front of everyone, in every meeting. Over a period of months, he had screamed at everyone several times, except for me... perhaps he sensed he wouldn't get away with it. One day, I got my screaming-at.  He disagreed with something we were doing. I don't even remember if he was right or wrong.
I do remember, though, waiting until the meeting was over.  I button-holed him in a private spot and told him quietly, out of earshot of anyone else... 
"I don't care if we have 2 successful products with you, if you ever scream at me again like that, here's what will happen... 
1) I will punch you in the nose and I have NEVER been violent and 
2) I will leave the meeting and terminate our licensing agreements.  
I am open to criticism of all sorts, even sarcastic, but not belittlement."
The culture of fear, on the other hand, was obviusly a strong motivator and it "worked well" for him.  BUT... if you are going to manage like that, don't ever lose your touch. Because fear/belittlement turns from being a strong (negative) motivator to hatred, disloyalty and defections.
It's not my style. And it's not an approach I'd suggest. A company built on mutual respect, where Team Leads hold accountable, yet, but positively, where programmers learn to tolerate a "dumb" technical comment from a support person, for example, and calmly explain the error... that's the type of company I want. That can't happen if it's not the attitude at the top.
Take care, Eolake.
All the best,

You can talk about anything if you go about it the right way, which is never malicious.
           -- Rodney Carrington


Paul Sunstone said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Eolake. I suspect Jobs succeeded despite his rudeness, rather than because of it.

I realize there are people who respond favorably to being treated like dirt, but I don't think they are in the majority.

emptyspaces said...

I agree with you, EO...and I also reject people that ignore their children. I'm typing this on a Macbook Pro and enjoy the hell out of my iPhone, but if you can't be nice to people or make time for your kids, for shame.

Bruce W. said...

I worked for a boss like Jobs once. The turnover in employees was incredible. He always was sure it was the employees fault, never his own actions. He is now out of business.

I have long advocated that large companies should (and some do) track the turnover of employees to spot bosses like this.

Jes said...

Yep, I just quit a job myself recently because of a supervisor with a bad attitude.

Don Powell said...

But I will claim that it is virtually never necessary to be rude or unpleasant.

Achieve what he has first. Otherwise you can't know.

Many of the greatest leaders in the world are unfailingly polite and pleasant.

Which ones, exactly?

Ivor Tymchak said...

I don't think you quite get it, for someone to achieve a vision of something in reality that is as near as possible to the vision they had in their head it is going to come at a cost. Driven people don't compromise, that's why they get angry and frustrated.

Anyone prepared to listen politely to reasoned argument is going to be too reasonable to sacrifice more valuable things to a vision.

Paul Sunstone said...

Eolake, it's my impression the Japanese are pretty good at getting what they want without rude behavior. Maybe whether someone believes that he or she can accomplish that -- i.e. can get what they want without rude behavior -- has something to do with which culture they were raised in.

Tom Jones said...

You don't know anything about the Japanese, then.

Paul Sunstone said...

Consider yourself invited to back up your words with evidence.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure, is it possible to succeed in business - to a very high level - without being a douche? They all seem to be.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Let's get more data, I'll write to a few people I know who rub shoulders with the captains of Industry.

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

OK, my question to a few people was:
"I blogged about Steve Job’s manners, or lack of them (according to his bio).
Some say that it’s normal, even necessary, for a leader to be blunt and rude to accomplish great things. I’m sure you’ve met a great number of prominent leaders, what do you say, are they often rude?"

Seth Godin answered:
"No, they're not."

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Guy Kawakaki answered:

"I don't think it's necessary or causative. Steve is one data point only."

Dave Nielsen said...

"No, they're not."

Well, what can I say? If I'd never heard a persuasive - nay, irrefutable - argument before, I've heard one now!

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Stephen Shapiro (24-7innovation) said:

" I think you can be driven/particular while being considerate."

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

(Post updated with insight from Ken Evoy.)

Tom Collins said...

perhaps he sensed he wouldn't get away with it.



That right there makes me think we can dismiss everything he said as worthless.