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.