Over the winter I read the authorized biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, written by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster 2011). And I have been puzzling for two months now over this question: How to reconcile the nasty, very often heartless, and narcissistic traits of Steve Jobs with his great accomplishments. What explains, or justifies, success at the expense of others, and how do we integrate this into a spiritual understanding of how to succeed as whole individuals, spiritually and morally developed?
Walter Isaacson, hand picked by Jobs to be his official biographer, pulls no punches. He repeatedly describes Jobs as cruel, indifferent, even to his own children, intolerant, judgmental, profane, verbally abusive to others, controlling, prone to humiliate others, often publicly castigating one day, then claiming credit for the same idea himself within a week. He was emotionally labile, often resorting to crying to get his way. He had the hallmarks of a narcissist, he thought he was “special” and was grandiose in his self-view. He used people up. In short, after 600 pages of biography I came away with a disturbing personality profile of Steve Jobs.
Isaacson also describes Jobs as “the greatest business executive of our era.” No doubt Jobs was a transformative force in design, technology development, both hardware and software, music technology, film animation, and retail marketing. Indeed, I am a fan of all things Apple. I am typing this blog on my iMac.
So here’s the question, again: does the ability to create and transform on the scale that Jobs did necessarily require an abrasive leader personality? And if it does, do these means, including abuse and humiliation and denial of others, justify the outcome? An outcome we all benefit from?
This is really an issue of leadership. Good leaders bring out the best in others by doing three things: providing clear vision, defining boundaries, and by creating an environment that fosters best effort. I would suggest that Jobs’ accomplishments were great in spite of his leadership style, and not because of it, and came at unnecessarily great expense, to himself and to others. Jobs was successful, perhaps immeasurably. But he was not a nurturer of talent in the sense of the great leader who inspires and supports the development and growth of those he leads. He was not a nurturing type apparently, and that limited his leadership potential.
His was a unique style, but not an integrated model of how to succeed. His means did not justify the ends, they just were his means. He was human, and still unfolding in his own path and development.
We each live our own life lessons. Isaacson did not address Jobs’ personal growth and self-development very much. But it is helpful to keep in mind that notwithstanding his notoriety, Steve Jobs had his own journey, too. He led the life that was his to live, the one he chose, and we can’t say or know what his experience was or what his learning curve was–or is. I imagine, however, he has some insights from his experience; wouldn’t it be interesting if he can invent a way to communicate them from beyond! In his eulogy, his sister, the writer Mona Simpson, described his death. “He’d looked at his sister… then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them. Steve’s final words were:
‘OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.’”
I wonder what he saw. And I wonder what he learned in the process.