I can't even recall quite when it happened, but several month back a Wired reporter named Ben Austen called me about a piece he was doing on Steve Jobs' legacy. I confess that kept the conversation short, in large part because I was just getting tired of the story -- and I think everyone else is as well. But this turned into the cover story, which -- despite my lack of enthusiasm about the topic -- is one of the most balanced and well-researched pieces I have seen. At least that became my biased opinion after I saw that he plugged my last two books in the final three paragraphs! Here is the whole piece if you want to read it and here is my argument -- you can read the whole excerpt about Jobs as a Rorschach test here, where I put it in earlier post. Here is how Ben Austen ended his piece:
As he was writing his 2007 book, The No Asshole Rule, Robert Sutton, a professor of management and engineering at Stanford, felt obligated to include a chapter on “the virtues of assholes,” as he puts it, in large part because of Jobs and his reputation even then as a highly effective bully. Sutton granted in this section that intimidation can be used strategically to gain power. But in most situations, the asshole simply does not get the best results. Psychological studies show that abusive bosses reduce productivity, stifle creativity, and cause high rates of absenteeism, company theft, and turnover—25 percent of bullied employees and 20 percent of those who witness the bullying will eventually quit because of it, according to one study.
When I asked Sutton about the divided response to Jobs’ character, he sent me an excerpt from the epilogue to the new paperback edition of his Good Boss, Bad Boss, written two months after Jobs’ death. In it he describes teaching an innovation seminar to a group of Chinese CEOs who seemed infatuated with Jobs. They began debating in high-volume Mandarin whether copying Jobs’ bad behavior would improve their ability to lead. After a half-hour break, Sutton returned to the classroom to find the CEOs still hollering at one another, many of them emphatic that Jobs succeeded because of—not in spite of—his cruel treatment of those around him.
Sutton now thinks that Jobs was too contradictory and contentious a man, too singular a figure, to offer many usable lessons. As the tale of those Chinese CEOs demonstrates, Jobs has become a Rorschach test, a screen onto which entrepreneurs and executives can project a justification of their own lives: choices they would have made anyway, difficult traits they already possess. “Everyone has their own private Steve Jobs,” Sutton says. “It usually tells you a lot about them—and little about Jobs.”
The point at which I really decided that the Jobs obsession was both silly and dangerous came about a month after his death. Huggy Rao and I were doing an interview on scaling-up excellence with a local CEO who founded a very successful company -- you would recognize the name of his company. After I stopped recording the interview, this guy -- who has a reputation as a caring, calm, and wickedly smart CEO -- asked Huggy Rao and me if we thought he had to be an asshole like Jobs in order for his company to achieve the next level of success.... he seemed genuinely worried that his inability to be nasty to people was career limiting.
Ugh. I felt rather ill and argued that it was important to be tough and do the dirty work when necessary, but treating people like dirt along way was not the path to success as a leader or a human-being. Perhaps this is my answer to the Steve Jobs Rorschach test: I believe that Jobs succeeded largely despite rather than because of the abuse he sometimes heaped on people. Of course, this probably tells you more about me than Jobs!