Steve Jobs, Reconsidered

Mamas, don't let your children grow up to be Steve Jobs. His style of leadership produced misery as well as value. It doesn't have to be that way.
Susan CrammFebruary 29, 2012

I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs over Christmas break and I can’t stop thinking about it.

The book disturbed me. I love Apple products; I wanted to admire Steve Jobs. But I don’t.

Great leaders don’t call people names. They don’t treat a person like a prince one day and a serf the next. They don’t practice intimidating stares in the mirror. They don’t treat relationships as if they were commodities to be traded.

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It’s not OK for leaders — for anyone — to abuse people. And I’m disturbed that Jobs is being hailed, as Isaacson writes, as “the greatest business executive of our era,” rather than as a flawed leader whose extraordinary talents and organizational abilities allowed him the freedom to mistreat others.

There are those who believe that his products and his temperament were inextricably linked, and that he could not have accomplished what he did without being — in many ways — an ass. But I believe it’s possible to be focused, control-oriented, and fanatical about one’s work without being mean.

For Jobs, it appears that being and staying mean was a conscious choice. According to his biographer, Jobs:

  • Trained himself to intimidate others by honing a “trick of using stares and silences to master other people.”
  • Denied IPO stock options to a colleague who “joined Apple when it was headquartered in Jobs’ garage.”
  • Possessed “an uncanny capacity to know” other individuals’ weak points and make them “feel small.”
  • Took credit for ideas that were not his. “When told of a new idea, he will immediately attack it” and, if it is a good one, “he will soon be telling people about it as though it was his own.”

Isaacson came to the conclusion that Jobs “could have controlled himself if he had wanted. When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness. Quite the contrary: He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will.”

If that’s true, then Jobs hurt people because he wanted to, because doing so served his ends and gave him some sort of pleasure. And when challenged about his behavior, Jobs is reported to have said, “This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not.”

Well, actually, we can. We don’t accept this excuse from our children and we certainly shouldn’t accept it from adults. Apparently, he needed help in growing up.

Those around Jobs who tolerated his bad behavior did him, themselves, and their various organizations a disservice. There’s no reason his legacy could not have included admirable human as well as technological works.

And what would have happened if Jobs had been held accountable for his behavior, rather than having been enabled by those who let Steve be Steve? Would we still have all our beloved “i” products? Don’t fall into the trap of believing that ends justify means. None of us, not even Steve Jobs, is indispensable. He may have been a genius, but he’s not the only one we’ve had. The fusion of personal technology and humanity would have occurred without Jobs — at some time and in some form — just as electricity and the telephone would exist today even if Franklin and Bell had not.

Great leaders strive to treat others with dignity. They understand that life is short and companies and products come and go. They believe that communities and organizations are accountable for taking care of people and the planet. They have gained the wisdom that today’s kind words echo into future generations. If you’re looking for role models, reread Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great. If you do, you’ll find plenty of leaders who took care of their customers, their companies, and their people by building “enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”

Among those I spoke with about the Jobs biography, a very smart and compassionate leader made me laugh when he said, “I don’t want my children to grow up to be Steve Jobs.” This man wants his children to be positive role models; he wants them to succeed. And he understands that, organizationally and individually, meanness doesn’t pay off.

Companies that allow abuse reduce their productive capacity as people devote a considerable portion of their creative energies to protecting themselves. The Jobs biography reveals that some of the tactics used by his subordinates in order to survive in the dysfunctional environment he willfully created included lying in order to ensure that the right work got done with appropriate resources. What a waste! It makes one wonder if Apple would be even more strongly positioned today with a founding leader who knew how to play well with others.

Individuals who think they can succeed by being mean are kidding themselves. Companies want people who can get things done in a way that builds relationships rather than subverts them. Jobs’s gifts and a considerable amount of luck allowed him to be spectacularly successful in spite of his pettiness and lack of emotional maturity. We should take care not to mistake his weaknesses for strengths; we shouldn’t try to emulate behaviors that make success — in life and in business — harder to achieve.

As you attempt to glean lessons from Jobs’s leadership, focus on the good and discard the bad. Apple, I believe, succeeded in spite of Jobs’s flaws, not because of them.

Susan Cramm is an executive coach and president of Valuedance, an executive coaching and leadership development firm specializing in information technology. She is a former CIO and CFO, and is the author of The 8 Things We Hate About IT: How to Move Beyond the Frustrations to Form a New Partnership with IT (Harvard Press). Susan can be reached at


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