Tomorrow morning, Fortune's Adam Lashinsky and I are going to spend an hour at The Churchill Club talking about Apple and what other organizations and leaders can (and cannot) learn from the world's most (economically) valuable company. If you want to attend, I think you can tickets here still available and I understand they are filming our discussion (I will let you know how to see the video when I find out).
Adam is the author of Inside Apple (see my detailed review and discussion here). I don't know nearly as much about Apple as Adam does, but like virtually every other management writer, I've produced various pieces on Apple and Steve Jobs because they are irresistible subjects (such as this piece on 5 Warning Signs to Watch for at Apple).
Part of me believes that Apple and Jobs have much to teach other companies and leaders. But, as I wrote in the new chapter in the Good Boss, Bad Boss paperback, part of me is starting to wonder if what each of us "learns" from Steve Jobs amazing life reveals more about our inner selves -- our personalities, preferences, and personal experiences -- than anything else. Below is the excerpt from Good Boss, Bad Boss where I toy with this argument (I edited it slightly because one sentence doesn't make sense unless you read the whole chapter).
I am writing this epilogue in December 2011, two months after the death of Steve Jobs, the most talked-about boss and innovator of our time. Like many others, I found Jobs’s great strengths, startling weaknesses, and bizarre quirks to be fascinating. For example, I wrote about him in The No Asshole Rule (in the chapter on “The Virtues of Assholes”). Even though Jobs’s nastiness was well documented before Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography was published, I was a bit shocked by tidbits in the book. As his death loomed, Jobs ran through sixty-seven nurses before finding three he liked. Still, there is no denying Jobs’s genius. Even though I would not have wanted to work for him, his design sensibilities, his ability to build great teams, and (in his later years) the way he structured a large organization that moved at the speed of a small one are admirable.
Recently, however, I had two experiences that led me to believe it is difficult for bosses who want to improve
their craft to learn from Steve Jobs. The first came after I had taught a two-hour session on innovation to forty CEOs of midsized Chinese companies. None spoke English and I don’t speak Mandarin, so there was a translator to enable communication. I put up a few Steve Job quotes and had fun figuring out that thirty-eight of the forty CEOs had iPhones. During the question-and-answer period, they seemed obsessed with Jobs.
The most interesting thing happened, however, after I ended the session. As I left, one CEO grabbed the microphone and started hollering into it, and as I walked outside for another meeting, they were yelling at each other. The translator told me they were arguing over whether Jobs was an asshole and whether they should emulate such behavior to be better bosses. When I came back thirty minutes later, the translators ran up to me— laughing—because those CEOs were still arguing over the same thing.
As I was driving home, I started thinking that Steve Jobs (or at least the idea of Steve Jobs) was so vivid, so
complicated, and so idolized that for those CEOs, he was like an inkblot test: they projected their inner beliefs, values, desires, and justifications for their behavior onto him. The conversation was sparked by Jobs, but the content had little or nothing to do with what Jobs was like in life or in the lessons he could teach those CEOs.
Then, a couple weeks later, I went to a party and talked with two people who worked closely with Jobs for years.
They started pretty much the same argument that those Chinese executives had. Although one asserted the good
deeds Jobs had done weren’t emphasized enough in media reports or the Isaacson biography, they nonetheless started arguing (and people who hadn’t worked for Jobs jumped in) about whether Jobs’s success meant it was wise or acceptable to be a jerk and when it was worth tolerating an asshole boss. As I listened, I believed once again that the idea of Steve Jobs was prompting people to make sense of and justify their behavior, personal values, and pet theories.
So I raised my hypothesis: that people couldn’t learn much from Jobs. That he was so hyped, so complex, and
apparently inconsistent that the “lessons” they derived from him where really more about who they were and hoped to be than about Jobs himself. The two people who worked closely with him agreed. And one added another reason why Jobs was and is a bad role model for bosses: Steve had such a weird and rare brain that it simply isn’t possible for another human being to copy him anyway!
I am curious, what do you think? As I re-read this, part of me still believes the argument above and part of me still believes that, well, every boss and innovator can learn something from him (despite the biases we all bring to the table). I also find it easier to think about Apple and its organization and management in a detached way than about Jobs -- perhaps because an organization, even Apple, could never have a personality and presence as vivid and intriguing as Mr. Jobs had.
P.S. The event at the Churchill Club was really fun, in part, because Adam and I didn't fully agree with each other. I especially disagreed with his arguments that Apple was unique in terms of its structure (especially how centralized it is for its size). We agreed on most things. But we had more fun and learned more -- and I think the audience did too -- because we pushed each other to refine or logic and examples. He is a smart and charming guy.