The new Fortune has a long and carefully researched article about The Trouble With Steve Jobs. I was interviewed by author Peter Elkind for the story, as Jobs is a central figure in my chapter on the virtues of assholes. I apply the term "asshole" to Jobs because prior publications have already done so (including Wired) and because, as the Fortune story says, as soon as people in Silicon Valley heard I was writing a book on the downsides of assholes, I had many people -- I mean hundreds, and quite a few who were or had been very close to him -- immediately start telling me Steve Jobs stories. Some argued he was such a jerk that he wasn't worth the trouble, many more argued that Jobs demonstrated that super-talented assholes are worth the trouble, and many also suggested that Jobs had once been banished from Apple for acting like such an asshole. Founding VC Arthur Rock has more or less said so in public, that the Apple board ended-up firing Jobs during the John Scully era because he was "out of control."
I haven't thought about this much since I wrote The No Asshole Rule, but looking back, a few things strike me:
1. There is some evidence that Jobs is mellowing out at a bit in old age. I notice, for example, that he has become much better about giving others credit.
2. An alternative hypothesis to the conclusion that being an asshole has helped Jobs be more effective can be found in this Dacher Keltner essay on power. Jobs, due to his genius, persistence, and luck, was thrust into a position of power as a very young man. Although he has suffered setbacks along the way -- especially being fired by Apple and the failure of NEXT -- he has spent most of the last 30 years in positions of great influence over others. As Keltner's research shows, a growing body of evidence suggests that assholes actually have a harder time achieving positions of power, but once people (including once very nice and considerate people) achieve power, they routinely turn into selfish and insensitive jerks -- Keltner even speculates that being put in a position power leads to effects that are similar to a form of brain damage. In short, Keltner is arguing that the causality about what it takes to become powerful has become confused: That most social systems select civilized, unselfish, and emotionally sensitive peers for powerful positions, but once those nice people get power, their behavior changes drastically. The implication is that -- in a case like Jobs -- behavioral scientists would predict that any person given that much power would become more focused on satisfying their own needs, less focused on the needs of others, and start acting like the "usual rules" don't apply to them.
3. All accounts about Jobs make clear that he is not all asshole all the time -- that he uses nastiness strategically at times or sometimes simply loses his temper. As I show in the chapter on the virtues of assholes, if you want to be an effective asshole, you can't be all asshole all the time. I have met Jobs briefly three or four times and he has always been perfectly civilized. (Our families sometimes have been on vacation at the same small resort in Hawaii several and our children went to the same nursery school as his at Stanford ---- we have three children that are roughly the same age as his kids.) One little quirk I noticed about Jobs at the nursery school and at a party where both of our kids attended is that he seems to like to sit on the swings, which I found rather charming. At one point, I recall our then five year old son Tyler complaining that he wanted a swing that Jobs was sitting on, and while I tried to steer Tyler away, Jobs quickly offered Tyler his swing.)
4. As I go back and look at the "Steve Jobs as asshole" stories that people have told me and I've read about in his biographies, it is interesting how often his anger seems to focus on two issues: aesthetics and ease of human use. Examples include his temper tantrum about the color that the vans were painted at NEXT, a story an engineer told me about how unhappy Jobs was with the color of the bolts inside a computer (he wanted the technicians and geeks who opened it up to be impressed with the beauty), and a story -- which is pure rumor -- that he fired someone from the Apple store because he didn't like the color and quality of the bags that she ordered. No doubt, a lot less suffering would happen if he had learned (perhaps he has learned) to deliver these messages with more civility, but as someone who teaches design thinking, I believe that Jobs hypersensitivity to human emotional experience is one of the things that gives Apple a huge advantage -- even though, ironically, he apparently has created a lot of negative emotional experiences for the people around him in the process. I also confess that I always notice how lovely the bags are at the Apple Store.
5. To return to some of the fun that I had with Google when I was researching the book (Guy Kawasaki had fun with this too), when I was writing the book, I put "Steve Jobs" and "Asshole" in Google and it produced 89,400 hits, a number dramatically higher than other allegedly nasty CEOs including Oracle's Larry Ellison and Disney's former CEO Michael Eisner. By the time the book was published, the number was well over 100,000. Well, a quick search reveals that -- whatever this number means -- Jobs asshole count is way down these days: 53,100 just a minute ago. And, in fact, mine is pretty close to his: "Robert Sutton" and Asshole yields 32,700. I also just tried an interesting twist; "Steve Jobs" and Genius yields 262,000 hits. I am not sure this means that he is five times more of a genius than an asshole, but there is no doubt that he has remarkable talents.
6. Finally, in reading the story and even my own writings and comments, I worry that, by glorifying Jobs, we are making the world safe for asshole infested organizations and fueling the belief that assholes make more effective leaders. If you take a careful look at research on leadership, it is quite clear that civilized and less selfish leaders are more effective at creating workplaces where people learn, repair mistakes, and innovate when they are compared to their nastier counterparts (and note this is not argument for wimpy leaders). Companies led by routinely demeaning people might succeed because (perhaps like Jobs) their leaders' other talents are so strong that they overwhelm such "asshole costs." Regardless of all these nuances and afterthoughts, my perspective remains that if you are a winner and an asshole, you still remain -- at least in my book -- a loser as a human being. Put differently, if the journey is the reward, then why would any of us choose to travel with a companion who treats his fellow travelers like dirt?
P.S. I suspect I will get the strongest reaction to my quote the Fortune article that ""Steve Jobs running the company from jail would be better for the stock price than Steve Jobs not being CEO." I have no reason to believe that Jobs is on his way to jail but -- legal issues aside -- I believe this statement given that most analysts (and nerds) view Jobs as the most irreplaceable CEO around, his personal style aside.