Plug your ears, I’m about to scream.
I don’t know who Gene Marks is, other than he’s a tech writer and runs a tech company, but I recently read a piece by him on the Forbes website that made me want to pour boiling water over my head and jump out the window.
After citing numerous instances of the eccentric rudeness and thoughtlessness of Steve Jobs, he makes this wondrous little observation:
“Steve Jobs was definitely a jerk. Good for him. I’ll never be a genius like him. But, for the benefit of my technology business (and all those who rely on it), I should be more of a jerk too.”
Wow, that’s an interesting takeaway from Jobs career. It also perpetuates one of the most deep seated perceptions of American business, maybe business everywhere: success comes to those who are, well, assholes.
I have no right to comment on this as a social scientist. And frankly I don’t have the time or energy to turn this into a research project, but I often wonder how many fairly decent CEO’s and entrepreneurs out there discipline themselves into being assholes because they believe business requires it. I admit I’ve fallen into this thinking numerous times (thank God my wife drags me out of it every time). It goes like this: I’m struggling, I have business problems, I can’t get enough done…I know, it’s because I’m not yelling at my employees. It must be that I’m not demanding enough from them. Damn it, they look too happy!
Remember the movie Raising Arizona? The successful furniture store owner Nathan Arizona was asked if any of his employees were disgruntled. “Hell, they’re all disgruntled. I ain’t runnin’ no daisy farm!” And thus the myth persists.
At the same time, for guys like Steve Jobs, who’s to say he wouldn’t have been just as successful without being a jerk. Was it his “jerkness” that caused his employees to succeed?
My exhibit to the contrary is a CEO who was bankrolled by Jobs, who considered him his “partner,” and who had the opportunity to emulate Jobs management example but didn’t, namely John Lasseter. Lasseter runs Pixar, which, while not as large as Apple, is certainly one of the success stories of the American economy for many of the same reasons. Pixar has combined creativity with business acumen and in so doing has set a new standard both for elegance and effectiveness. Not just profit, but progress flows out of companies like Pixar, and Apple.
Esquire magazine recently named Lasseter “Father of the Year” and Tom Junod wrote a wonderful profile of his leadership of Pixar (it also has a nice photo of Lasseter and Jobs sharing good times together). Toward the end of the article, this is the observation made about how John Lasseter “gets the job done”:
“His [employees] are his children, and he has chosen to inspire them rather than exercise his authority over them. He has chosen to let them remain children and adults both, by not making them fear him, and by exiling fear from the building.”
So however much writers like Gene Marks want to equate the tyrannical style of Steve Jobs with successful leadership, I will choose to look to guys like John Lasseter for my cues. Then, whether or not I succeed in business I will have succeeded in something more important: being a decent human being.
(If you’d like a more balanced retrospective on Jobs, I’d suggest Junod’s over Marks’s).