Steve Jobs was a difficult person to work for. He frequently directed high-decibel tirades at subordinates and business competitors. He often manipulated people and played on their insecurities. And yes, he also is one of the iconic figures of the digital age.
Since Jobs passed away, several journalists have asked me whether his genius justifies keeping bullying bosses on the payroll. You can almost hear the silent reasoning: No Steve Jobs, and there go my Mac, iPad, iPod, and iPhone.
But let’s set the record straight: Most jerks at work aren’t Steve Jobs. Some are good at what they do. Many are mediocre. Others are terrible. But only a rare few are such brilliant, innovative, industry-defining people that we should even consider whether the trade-off is worth it.
Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-Word
UC-Berkeley linguistics professor Geoffrey Nunberg astutely observes that we live in an era of valorizing jerks. In an AlterNet piece drawn from his new book, Ascent of the A-Word (2012), he writes:
This is an age of assholism simply because we find the phenomenon and its practitioners so interesting — or provocative, or compelling, or compellingly repulsive, or sometimes all of those at once.
Nunberg references the growing pile of business advice books built on the message that if managers simply become bigger jerks, then they, too, will be rich and famous. For example, he cites one book that praises the leadership qualities of General George S. Patton and concludes:
The passage is calculated to reassure even the most abusive manager that he’s on the right track; it’s for the good of the team, after all, and whatever his subordinates may say about him, they’ll be grateful later on.
Where abuse and bad management meet
Often it is possible to distinguish bullying from bad management. Bullying is targeted and abusive. Not only is it personally destructive, but also it has nothing to do with advancing legitimate organizational goals. Bad management, on the other hand, is just that: A boss doesn’t have the personal qualities or skill set to manage effectively and humanely, and at times incivility is a by-product of those shortcomings.
But Nunberg helps us to understand how abuse can be culturally validated as a legitimate leadership style. When such acceptance enters the workplace, everyone but a select few potentially pays the price.
Even if you don’t have time to read Nunberg’s book, his AlterNet excerpt goes into considerable detail and is worth a close look.