What Steve Jobs Got Wrong– And How You Can Get it Right

What Steve Jobs Got Wrong – And How You Can Get it Right



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 (see here for a timeline of Job’s life and the rise of Apple). 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!


  • Thank-you for this great column this week Dan. I wish every leader in the world could read this article. I am heartened to hear someone say that people shouldn’t have to be the collateral damage for perfection and productivity in the workplace!

  • This was a most refreshing read on a Monday morning. One of my favorites that you have ever written.

    I could not agree more and I could not have said it better.

    Thank you!

  • I’ve followed leaders like this (although much less visible than Jobs). They get results by virtue of their own abilities, believe in their own perfectionist mythology (e.g., iPhone with an iffy antenna, etc), but leave many bruised people along the way. These bruised employees very often have learned to be safe and wait for direction before taking necessary action. When they go from dictator to a leadership style that sets a vision and then asks them to bring their full talent and initiative to the table, you have to very specifically tell them you won’t be nipping at their heels like a shepherd dog. Then you have to make sure they know specifically the level of self-initiative you expect, and that it is safe to make honest mistakes, learn from them, always moving closer and closer to perfection. Finally, you have to repeat the clear vision over and over so that they know the framework within which to act more independently.

    • Harris,
      These are great points you raise about how brutalizing behavior plants all kinds of bad seeds in the followers’ minds – fear about making mistakes, uncertainty about their own ideas, need for (over) direction, etc. This on top of the feelings they bring home (or bring to the bar) – feelings of victimization and sometimes pent-up anger that will find an outlet…somewhere.
      Well put.

  • I had the same impressions about Steve Jobs’ leadership when I read this biography. I was left with the question: Would I be willing to suffer random humiliation to be part of a truly great, world-changing company? Based on our innate desire to make a difference, the answer is not as clear cut as one might think. Jobs’ common response to new ideas from his employees was, “That’s the stupidest idea I ever heard.” After reading this repeatedly in the book it almost seemed comical, except that in real life I don’t think it would be.

    I agree, Dan. There is a higher standard as it relates to how we relate to others, both personally and professionally, and we should hold ourselves to it.

  • Excellent column – while I am a perfectionist and sometimes struggle for patience with this as I am working with coworkers/users, and helping them to understand complex systems and processes, I know that the struggle is good and I should be more understanding and helpful to get more from everyone and to improve product and process. I strive to be more zen and calm. Nice thoughts to start the week. Thanks!

  • I’m so glad you took the Issacson biography head on. I’m afraid there are many Jobs wannabees out there who are taking from it the lesson that they are free to be brutalizing jerks. Better they read your column instead!

  • Narcissistic leaders often attain greatness. They can see what the future holds; they aren’t analyzers or number crunchers who try to understand or explain it. They are focused on creating it.

    Another compelling quality is their gift for attracting followers. Narcissistic leaders intuitively know how to inspire through their words, speeches and language.

    But as narcissists become increasingly self-assured, they act more spontaneously. They feel free of constraints, and ideas flow. They believe they’re invincible, which further inspires followers’ enthusiasm and feeds into feelings of grandiosity.

    The adoration narcissists crave can have a corrosive effect. As their personalities expand, they tune out cautionary words and advice. Past successes create an exaggerated self-confidence. If anyone disagrees with them, they feel justified in ignoring them, creating further isolation. The result is flagrant risk-taking that can lead to catastrophe.

    Jobs’ career seemed to experience both the highs of success and the lows of catastrophe. At the end of his life, he went out at the height of career success. Not a bad way to exit this life.

    • John,
      I think this is one of your best comments. It is enlightening to read about narcissism.
      But some would argue you should have sustained your argument right to the end, as apparently Jobs sustained his narcissism to the end. You conclude that “he went out at the height of career Success. Not a bad way to exit this life.” Many however have speculated that had he sought medical treatment in the first place and made use of chemo he might well be alive. Instead he took a skeptical approach and spent nine critical months using a special diet instead of the surgery he later opted for.
      Some think he might have beaten the cancer for much longer.
      I feel a little tentative writing this. Who am I to judge? But I wonder if your point about this “type” – which none of us can for sure fit this particular man – doesn’t apply right to the end?

  • Dan,

    You continue to make me think and reflect. This was one of your best. We can be a individual that strives for the best and still be civil in the process. Treat others as you like to be treated. Keep leading with your best self.


  • Dan,

    This one makes me think newly about you. I had thought you would never discuss this kind of negative behavior and its damage on individuals, organizations, businesses. John Agno’s comments fit my experience with jerks ( narcisists, sociopaths, psychopaths).

    One statistic: about 4% of the population are narcistic/ psychopaths, or something close to it, so expect to meet them.

    One striking example I have seen was a boss who demeaned me and my ideas, as you describe Jobs had done to his employees. But, then add to the insult, often a week or so after he had completely tore part an idea of mine, he would then present it to me as his own, and as the greatest idea ever, to cut costs. And then ask me to implement “his” idea.

    In politics I have expereince with a few persons who are talented at mind games and lies. People like that must dissociate reality from their words.

    And an example from Jobs: In this week’s Bloomberg magazine is this, “Steve Jobs called Google’s Android operating system “grand theft’ and vowed to destroy it. But the legal war he started before he died could do Apple more harm than good.”

  • 100% agree. I worked at Apple for a dozen years and loved it – smart people, great teams, inspiring work challenges – but I left because I couldn’t work in Job’s world anymore.

  • Hi Dan,

    Great article — as always!

    I’ve always been a big fan of Apple, but I also deplore Mr. Jobs methods. There is a higher standard, and as higher thinking, rational individuals, the tension is finding your path to that standard. I wonder if as a society, we are moving closer to an “ends justifying the means” ideal, and losing sight that it’s truly how we conduct the journey that caresses the beautiful, lasting outcome.

    This, among other reasons, is why I made a conscious choice to never discipline my children with force. I believe that as a thinking individual, I can effect change and teach without resorting to fear for results. I’m not judging people that do, simply choosing to lead my brood, and my team, without fear.

    thanks again!

  • Great insights, Dan – and all those contributing on this page.

    We can learn ‘what NOT to do’ as well as what we want to emulate in a person who achieves greatness, and this is an example.

    We all have ‘the inner jerk’ to address. It helps me to have friends and professional colleagues who are willing to hold the mirror to my behaviors, and who have my permission to help me improve. And I have to be willing to apoligize when I overstep. Occasionally I may ‘lose’ to someone who leads with a jerk style, but I would rather refocus my disappointment on ways to live the collaborative values that I prefer to model.

    I think it was an old Ed Harris recording that ended with the words, ‘Living well is the best revenge, I’m sure.’

    I cannot change the world, but I can work to share the best version of myself.

  • Dan great article and hard to find fault with “humane leadership.” I haven’t read the book and don’t know Jobs but you may be oversimplifying a bit. Your definition would certainly put Drill Sgts. out of business, and we would certainly lose all those gurus we love in so many movies where guys like Yoda put guys like Luke Skywalker through the mill. Not to mention all those highly motivating athletic coaches who sometimes use a “in your face” approach. I admit that in my own career I sometimes tried to elicit anger in someone in order to get them out of some kind of self limiting box. I don’t intend this comment to be taken as an excuse for so many boorish and gratuitously hurtful bosses. But I do know that I got a whole heck of a lot out of some very good teachers who at times severely “bruised’ my own ego.

    Finally we live in an era of hyper sensitivity where egos bruise more readily than ever. Walking that line between molly coddling and downright abuse is a difficult leadership challenge. Thanks for a great article.

    • Augie,
      Thanks for weighing in. I appreciate the push back. But I want to drive us to a distinction and that is between “ego bruising” and “soul bruising,” between a jolt of awareness, and demeaning. I think the fundamental distinction is between critiquing the work and critiquing the person. I too have had some tough people; I have written about their incredible challenges to me. But I don’t think they had to assail me in a deep personal way. One told me what I had written “was shit.” He didn’t say or even imply that I was shit.
      I wish that all of us with “jerks” within us could challenge ourselves with the question: Is there a way for me to express that the product or even the effort could be better without attacking the person. I believe there can be. I’ll bet that often – perhaps most of the time Bobby Knight and Vince Lombardi – were able to push for huge heights of performance without belittling people. But sometimes they humiliated and crushed. And the world told them: It’s okay; you’re so good, so brilliant, so special; that YOU get to be a total jerk sometimes. I just think we should quit telling people that. Most of those people are pushing for effort and focus and push and discipline – Steve Jobs certainly was – and I think we should tell them: MODEL THE WAY. Show some discipline yourself.
      What do you think?

  • Dan,

    At risk of ending up on Lake Superior State University’s overused word website, I have to say that this piece “resonated” with me in my role as an employee. I agree with the others who commented that it is one of the most thought-provoking, challenging and yet oddly comforting things I’ve ever read. Through the years, I have worked for no less than twenty supervisors. Of them, two were people I would acclaim as incredible leaders. Both shared a quiet confidence in their leadership abilities; neither placed themselves in position of superiority, assuming that their opinions and ideas were sacrosanct, and that those of others were not valuable. Both demonstrated great respect for all employees and received it in return. Another strength noted in leadership skills was honest and immediate feedback, positive and negative, geared toward improving performance and achieving shared vision.

    Other folks did not hesitate to criticize one staff member to another, take sides or choose favorites. Some staff were belittled, manipulated, criticized unjustly, humiliated, even bullied in an environment in which bullying between chldren will no longer be ignored or tolerated. This was indeed a hostile work environment, much agin to a dysfunctional family.

    I am positive that I, too, have an inner jerk, but I hope to continue to reflect on these words, so that I may shake it off before causing pain to others. This was a wonderful reminder in this Easter season of rebirth to “lead with our best selves!”

  • Dan, I’m flattered that you responded as I’m a huge fan. I’ve agonized long and hard about the distinction between “ego bruising” and “soul bruising” and am left with the opinion that it is at times a very fine distinction. I say this because I was often left wondering whether my own teachers knew the distinction. I”ve also wondered late into the night if I have been guilty of the latter when I intended the former. In many ways it all comes down to how badly both teacher and student want something and their willingness to undergo the risks.

    I saw a movie once about a black soldier who had lost the use of his legs as an emotional reaction to guilt over a comrade’s death. The soft spoken, mild mannered military shrink tries everything he can think of to show the soldier that his affliction is psychosomatic and that he is not responsible for his friend’s death. All to no avail. After another fruitless session the shrink pretends he has given up and heads for the door. Suddenly he turns and unleashes a torrent of racial slurs at the soldier. The soldier’s face turns from shock to fury and he lunges to his feet and goes after the doctor. By the time he reaches him, the shrink is smiling and the soldier realizes he is walking. The scene ends with them hugging and the soldier weeping.

    So was the shrink’s tactic justified? If it had backfired then what? Was it worth the risk? Today, even if the guy ended up walking the doc would still be sued or worse. I often opine that for every “inner jerk” there is at least one of us that deprives ourselves of a wonderful opportunity to grow because we are too addicted to our precious sense of entitlement. God forbid that we get our feelings hurt. Ironically I just wrote a somewhat tongue in cheek apologia for Dr House’s leadership/teaching approach for Forbes.com. Love your thoughts. http://www.forbes.com/sites/augustturak/2012/03/28/a-leadership-prescription-not-vicodin-from-dr-house/?utm_source=alertsnewpost&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20120328

    In response someone sent me a trailer from a recent movie about a woman who aspires to be some kind of Kung Fu master. Her teacher insists that she can and WILL drive her hand through a thick oak plank and stands over her ridiculing her and occasionally cracking her on the head as she repeatedly fails while bloodying her knuckles. And of course she eventually succeeds. Movies like this are legion. We love these teachers and line up and exchange hard currency to watch them work their magic. But then we want our own teachers to be nothing but sweetness and light.

    I repeat I don’t know the answer. I can only report that I am personally glad that I risked soul bruising to get the ego bruising that I so sorely needed. I guess I end up with the position that life is not fair and there are no guarantees. Outsize results require outsize risks. Again thanks for a great article. augie

  • @August Turak. I would not want to start the conversation about ego bruising versus soul bruising, since it sounds like a first step in justifting the jerk’s actions. I do not think the psychologist who used racial slurs with the black man was being a jerk. The term “bruising,” is making slight of the damage done by jerks.

  • Mr. Hunter, it was Dan who mentioned the distinction between ego bruising and soul bruising and created the distinction. And yes sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a jerk is just a jerk. On the other hand, as I illustrated with movie examples one man’s jerk can be another’s sage. Tens of millions tune in to watch Dr. House play “jerk.” I also don’t think the shrink who used racial slurs was a jerk, yet if the outcome had been ineffective many would. Many might think so even if he was successful in curing the soldier. I for one have labored mightily to NOT be a jerk, but alas I’m sure a few people think I am one. If you have got this far in life without being considered –unfairly at times- a jerk then you are indeed blessed. Ironcially all this discussion about “jerks” defies the intention. Dan argued quite well that we should correct the thinking but not attack the thinker. By this standard isn’t referring to some people as “jerks” a contradiciton? I don’t agree. Sometimes you just have to tell a jerk that he is a jerk.

  • Hi,

    I really learned from and appreciate this different view on Job’s leadership success. As I am currently writing a paper on leadership, I am wondering whether Apple’s success could have been greater if Jobs had been more respectful and tactful with staff. Aside from not interfering with his perfectionism or being more humane, I am wondering how, if at all, changing his “rough style” would have helped Apple become more successful as a business?

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