Jobs on the job are rare: Most cruel bosses aren’t indispensable geniuses


Megan Garber, writing for The Atlantic, uses the premiere of a documentary about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, by Alex Gibney) to examine the complications of idolizing a brilliant creator who also could be a very nasty individual. The new documentary, Garber tells us, does not flinch in examining this side of its subject.

Garber’s own characterization of Jobs, while recognizing his genius, acknowledges his deep flaws:

He could be, on top of so much else, a terrible person. Not just a jerk, occasionally and innocuously, but a bully and a tyrant. . . . Jobs regularly parked his unlicensed Mercedes in handicapped spots. He abandoned the mother of his unborn child, acknowledging his daughter only after a court case proved his paternity. He betrayed colleagues who stopped being useful to him. He made the still-useful ones cry.

Garber and the documentary ask the inevitable questions that crop up whenever “brilliant” and “bully” allegedly combine in one individual, such as whether big positives justify major failings, and whether being a jerk is necessary to succeed.

Of course we know that being a bully or a jerk is not a prerequisite for success. But all too often, people excuse abusive behaviors by claiming these qualities are eccentricities that we must tolerate if certain geniuses are to flourish. I’ve addressed those questions on this blog (here and here), and you can guess where I come out on them.

But more importantly, we need to emphasize this point, lest a massively erroneous assumption become accepted as conventional wisdom:

Most cruel bosses are not indispensable geniuses.

Got it? Most cruel bosses are not indispensable geniuses.

To begin with, people with the creative, entrepreneurial vision of Steve Jobs are rarities. Secondly, the ones who happen to bully and berate are rarer still.

In reality, the most abusive bosses tend to range from competent to bad in other aspects of their job performance. Like the rest of us mere mortals, they are wholly replaceable. In fact, those who cannot get their act together and treat people with a baseline of dignity should be sent down the exit ramp.

Many of these supposed superstars do have a useful skill: They are brilliant at kissing up and kicking down. They stroke and cultivate superiors, who, in turn, react with disbelief when allegations of mistreatment come from subordinates. They create a mythology about their value to the organization. They also have a sixth sense for self-preservation, including a knack for rubbing out those who call attention to their abusive behaviors, without any pangs of conscience to give them pause.

So, the next time you hear folks raise the “Steve Jobs defense” in response to allegations of bullying and abuse, call them on it. It’s very likely that when you dig beneath the surface, you will quickly see that the supposed genius is anything but that.

5 responses

  1. This is a good post. And it is good to remember that it is most likely that while he abused others he benefited from them, essentially robbing them of their piece of the glory through not even recognizing their contributions. We need to remember that any organization – even Apple – is not one person. The misguided belief that one person does it all is a dangerous illusion. We could call them thieves and exploiters with just as much evidence and be just as correct as calling then brilliant. We can call them glory seekers. They never do it alone. Maybe we all need to be even more suspect of those who claim that they do.

  2. I feel I have started the day being reminded of life sustaining truths. One point I found particularly well written was: “They create a mythology about their value to the organization.” The part of the mythology aspect of the system is very insightful, perhaps even an epiphany for me. In one place I worked, two women (speech and language therapists of equivalent ages and experience) were in similar positions with regard to their health. They both had had strokes. One, Mary, was adored. While she had a very sunny personality so did Sheila. Mary was petted verbally and brought up for special attention and extra nice sunshine club type gifts. Sheila was a kind and supportive woman, as a matter of fact she was my sole support system when I was going through my bullying days with this organization. She literally saved my life.

    The mythology was that Mary was a saint and deserved solid and steady appreciation and that Sheila was not particularly important. I think they both were wonderful people. But Sheila did suffer from bullying and eventually left the school district.

  3. Great post, and nice way of using Jobs to help put your point into perspective for the broader workforce, because I’m sure all too many have experienced the very kind of abusive boss you describe — the ones who excel at ‘kissing up and kicking down.’

    I sadly spent 7 years working in an office with someone like this, but managed to avoid having to report directly this person or I wouldn’t have survived that long. It was miserable to watch, though. Despite multiple people going to HR (including myself) and to this person’s supervisor about the bullying behavior, nothing ever happened, but many abused employees were forced out over the years due to such misery — indeed, that was this person’s intent in some cases. Some superiors couldn’t believe this person’s behavior could be that bad, and others who knew about it felt this person was too important to lose.

    If only we could get this message to resonate with some of the superiors of abusive bosses.

  4. So much of this stems from what we as a society value. Jobs not Gandhi or Mandela. Money not kindness. I’m at a point in my life that the vision of an urban castle or a BMW repulse me. Lost some friends as well because I found myself getting nauseous hearing about their shopping escapades. If we really look at how our society treats its most vulnerable we really suck. Sorry for being a Debbie Downer, but…..

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