Steve Jobs: Brilliant, visionary, and (like most of us) imperfect

Apple store, Boston's Back Bay (by David Yamada)

Public reaction to the passing of Apple’s Steve Jobs after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer has become a phenomenon in itself. News media have devoted tons of space and time to stories praising his inventive, visionary work. Facebook was inundated immediately with expressions of sadness from Apple fans. Grateful customers have left flowers and notes outside of Apple stores, as this photo I took on Sunday attests.

When was the last time we saw such an outpouring of affection and mourning surrounding the death of a company executive and entrepreneur?

Remarkable personal legacy

I’m writing this article on my MacBook. Earlier this year, I bought an iPad. Though I don’t use it often, I’ve got an iPod too. And were it not for my loathing of cell phones, I probably would’ve replaced my ancient flip phone (with antenna!) with an iPhone as well.

So yes, I understand how Steve Jobs changed the way millions of people work and play, especially when our lives cross with digital technology. He believed in making products that were, in his words, “insanely great,” and quite often, he succeeded.

Many associate Jobs with his more recent innovations, but if you want to learn more about the early days of the digital world he helped to create, check out Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984) and Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer That Changed Everything (2000 ed.).

But he could be a bully

Nevertheless, those interested in effective management should not overlook that Jobs was an extremely demanding boss who could become a bullying one. As David Streitfeld observed last week in the New York Times (link here), he “chewed out subordinates and partners who failed to deliver, trashed competitors who did not measure up and told know-it-all pundits to take a hike.”

In 2009, Forbes magazine named Jobs to its “Bullying Bosses Hall of Fame” (link here), noting that he “is known for his obsessive attention to detail and iron-fisted management style. He is often accused of making his subordinates cry and firing employees arbitrarily.”

Jobs was a genius, intolerant of what he perceived to be marginal work. Forbes pointed out that some of his subordinates produced the best work of their careers, but surely others withered under the blistering criticism.

Life lessons

Steve Jobs envisioned and created digital machines that have changed the everyday lives of millions. However, we can praise his body of work without ignoring that — like most of us — he had some things he should work on. After all, the lives of remarkable people yield more useful lessons when we regard them as gifted and imperfect human beings, rather than as icons.

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Related post

What will be your body of work?

3 responses

  1. There is nothing wrong with being a bossy boss or with expecting perfection, but bullying decreases productivity. I have to wonder what wonderful things his employees could have done without the bullying.

  2. True. Demanding better doesn’t have to become bullying. You can teach people, inspire them, challenge them, group them in different groups to learn from each other, etc.

    I may never have had the impact on the world that Jobs had, but my colleagues know they can count on me for good work, creative inspiration, and a morale-booster when they need it. I can live with that.

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