Be a Jerk: The Worst Business Lesson From the Steve Jobs Biography

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Apple's founder and CEO could be a cruel and nasty guy. He was also the greatest chief executive of our time. Don't go thinking those two things are related.

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AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Steve Jobs was a visionary, a brilliant innovator who reshaped entire industries by the force of his will, a genius at giving consumers not only what they wanted, but what they didn't yet know they wanted.

He was also a world-class asshole.

Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography of Jobs offers a revealing look at what the author has called "good Steve" and "bad Steve." Good Steve was brilliant, charismatic, a champion for excellence, an alchemist who turned a moribund computer company into gold. Bad Steve was petulant, rude, spiteful, and controlling, a man who thought nothing of publicly humiliating employees, hogging the credit for work he hadn't done, throwing tantrums when he didn't get his way, or parking his Mercedes in handicapped spots. For several years, he even denied the paternity of his daughter so that the child and her mother had to live on welfare.

The ease with which people can possess astonishingly contradictory qualities is one of the mysteries of human nature; indeed, it's one of the things that separates humans from, say, an Apple computer. Every one of the components that makes up an iPad is essential to the work it produces. Remove one part and the machine no longer performs its job, and not even the Genius Bar can fix it. But humans are full of qualities that are in no way integral to their functioning in the world. Some aspects of personality have little or no bearing on whether a person performs well, and not a few people succeed in spite of their darker qualities. You can be a genius and an asshole, but the two aren't necessarily causally linked. In fact, there's a strong body of evidence to suggest that there are plenty of assholes who aren't geniuses at anything other than ... being assholes.

The next batch of business books: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Assholes, The One-Minute Asshole, and Who's The Asshole Who Moved My Cheese?

But such subtleties may be lost on CEOs, middle managers and wannabe masters of the universe who are currently devouring the Steve Jobs biography and thinking to themselves: "See! Steve Jobs was an asshole and he was one of the most successful businessmen on the planet. Maybe if I become an even bigger asshole I'll be successful like Steve."

This sort of flawed thinking -- call it asshole logic -- isn't something that's necessarily endorsed by Jobs's biographer.

"(Jobs) was not the world's greatest manager," Walter Isaacson said in a recent interview with 60 Minutes. "In fact, he could have been one of the world's worst managers."

But asshole logic, not surprisingly, tends to ignore facts that don't sanction one's own assholery. This distorted reasoning was already prevalent before Steve Jobs's death, and is only likely to spread as Isaacson's biography closes in on becoming the best-selling book of 2011. Five years ago, when Stanford professor of management science and engineering Robert Sutton was researching his book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, he ran across a disconcerting number of Silicon Valley leaders who believed that Steve Jobs was living proof that being an asshole boss was integral to building a great company.

Sutton's counter-thesis was that assholes--which he defined as those who deliberately make co-workers feel bad about themselves and who focus their hostility on the less powerful--poison the workplace and induce qualified employees to quit and are therefore bad for business, regardless of the asshole's individual talent or effectiveness.

When Sutton published an article in the Harvard Business Review advancing his theory, he was amazed at the reaction. He had published other articles in the Review, many of them longer and better researched, but nothing provoked the response that his asshole article did. Sutton received well over 1,000 emails, and gathered countless horror stories, including one about a worker undergoing chemotherapy whose boss told him he was "a wimp and a pussy."

What an asshole!

Sutton decided to expand the article into a book, and wound up interviewing dozens of Silicon Valley leaders and insiders. When Sutton would advance the notion that assholes are bad for business, one person after another had the same reaction: "What about Steve Jobs?"

"Even people who worked with Jobs told me that they'd seen him make people cry many times, but that 80 percent of the time he was right, " says Sutton. "It is troubling that there's this notion in our culture that if you're a winner, it's okay to be an asshole."

So many people advanced Steve Jobs as evidence that asshole CEOs build better companies that Sutton somewhat reluctantly included a chapter in his book on "The Virtues of Assholes," with Steve Jobs as Exhibit A. There is some evidence that "status displays" by aggressive bosses can motivate workers and give slackers a kick in the pants. And effective jerk bosses usually aren't assholes all the time, they're able to turn on the charm when the situation demands it, something Steve Jobs, by most accounts, was very good at doing. And it helps for companies to have skilled subordinate executives that are good at cleaning up after the Asshole-in-Chief, much like the sad-faced men carrying shovels who walk behind circus elephants.

But Sutton's book makes clear that for the most part, assholes are bad for the bottom line, to say nothing of the human toll they exact. There are plenty of very successful companies that aren't led by assholes - Google, Virgin Atlantic, Procter & Gamble and Southwest Airlines among them. Likewise, there are legions of assholes who lead companies that aren't successful, in part due to their own bad behavior.

With the death and canonization of Steve Jobs and the emergence of the Jobs biography as a kind of sacred text for managers, the ranks of bosses who see Bad Steve's nastier traits as something to imitate is liable to swell. It's unlikely the book will make despots out of thoughtful, fair-minded middle managers. It's far more probable that it will turn bosses who are already assholes into even bigger assholes, raising the temperature of the worst actors so that they become that most combustible of workplace figures, the flaming asshole.

Already, the web is full of articles that hold up Steve Jobs as the model of how to lead and succeed in life, with titles such as "Ten Leadership Lessons from the Steve Jobs School of Management" and "21 Life Lessons from Steve Jobs." Most of these works prefer to focus on Good Steve, but it may not be long until business book authors hone in on the timeless lessons to be drawn from Bad Steve's asshole ways. The titles write themselves: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Assholes. The One-Minute Asshole. Who's The Asshole Who Moved My Cheese?

The fact is, Steve Jobs didn't succeed because he was an asshole. He succeeded because he was Steve Jobs. He had an uncanny sixth sense about what consumers wanted, an unmatched ability to adapt existing technology and turn it into something new, and a commitment to quality that turned ordinary Apple customers into fans for life. Being an asshole was part of the Steve package, but it wasn't essential to his success. But that's not a message most of the assholes in the corner offices want to hear.

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Tom McNichol, a frequent contributor to TheAtlantic.com, is a San Francisco writer whose work has also appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on NPR's "All Things Considered."

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