Steve Jobs was an asshole, and not your typical run-of-the-mill asshole. He was a raging world-class asshole. He regularly belittled people; lashed out intentionally to hurt those around him; fired masses of people without guilt and told the fired employees in at least one public instance that they were being fired because they were not “A team” material; denied the paternity of his first daughter for years and refused to provide child support; gave little to philanthropy despite being a multibillionaire and even seemed to look down upon those, like Bill Gates (a perennial rival), who did engage actively in philanthropy.
The details of Jobs’ consistently bad behavior are clear from reading Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography, Steve Jobs, completed after years of pestering by Jobs himself to write this book. Isaacson accepted only after Jobs’ wife let him know that her husband might not be around much longer so if Isaacson was ever planning to write the biography, he’d better get started.
The tragedy is that Jobs very likely could have achieved everything he did — and he did, of course, achieve a great deal in his fairly short life — without being such a jerk. Isaacson agrees with this point explicitly at the end of his book, musing on many occasions why Jobs felt the need to consistently belittle and put down other people, and why Jobs’ world was so black and white on issue after issue. One of Jobs’ favorite statements, apparently, was “this is shit.” For Jobs, everything was either feces or gold, but the large majority of things were feces.
So why should we care about Jobs’ bad behavior, now that Jobs has left this world? We should care because Isaacson’s biography has sold many millions of copies, making it the best-selling book of 2011 in the United States, and because Jobs’ life will be examined by millions of aspiring entrepreneurs as a model of business success. Here’s one example (unsurprisingly from Forbes magazine) of high praise specifically for Jobs’ bad behavior. The easy, but wrong, lesson from Jobs’ life and career is that being a world-class asshole is helpful and perhaps even necessary to succeed in business.
The present article is my small attempt to help dispel that conclusion.
A recent book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t, by Robert I. Sutton, demonstrates convincingly that companies led by assholes generally do worse than companies led by non-assholes. Why? “Every workplace needs the no asshole rule because mean-spirited people do massive damage to victims, bystanders who suffer the ripple effects, organizational performance and themselves.”
It’s common sense, borne out by experience, that people who perpetually face crap from the CEO or other leaders will generally re-direct that crap down the chain of command. It makes for a very unhealthy workplace and this affects morale and productivity.
What was Jobs’ own take on his egregious behavior? “That’s just who I am.” No apologies and very little effort to improve his impact on others. And the true irony was that Jobs considered himself to be an enlightened figure with a life-long interest in Zen Buddhism. One would be hard pressed to find a Buddhist who would have approved of Jobs’ behavior.
I’ve had many jobs, including serving in the Army for four years in the early 1990s, a haven for jerks of all colors; working at Starbucks for a number of years during college; bucking hay in high school; washing dishes in an Italian restaurant; and many other jobs before becoming a lawyer, during which time I’ve worked for corporate law firms, small firms, and now for myself. In other words, I’ve been around many types of assholes and I’ve learned how to deal with most of them.
But being an asshole has always been unnecessary, in my view, and I can point to many ways that every alleged benefit of being an asshole can be accomplished without putting people down, grandstanding or ruffling feathers. This is not the place for details of my leadership philosophy (and who cares anyway?), but I’ve found that one can be firm, decisive, efficient, creative, insightful, inspirational and have integrity without putting other people down, without throwing tantrums, without yelling, and without having a huge ego.
The conclusion I draw from reading Isaacson’s biography is that Jobs may well have left a net-negative influence on this world. Who cares that he provided us with pretty and highly functional products? Surely the human race would not be worse off if there were no Macs, iPods or iPhones in this world. Other companies would have filled the gap, if there had been no Apple, perhaps with products that weren’t quite as obsessively crafted, but nonetheless solid products. The human race would have been fine.
But the negative impacts of one highly influential man’s sociopathic behavior may in fact have spread far and wide in Silicon Valley, in the United States more generally, and perhaps even around the world due to Jobs’ inverse “pay it forward” rule. Again, crap rolls downhill and people often spread their negative feelings to others by lashing out at those who are weaker than they are, just as they have been lashed out by those above them in their particular pecking order.
Beyond personal misbehavior, Jobs also led Apple, now the world’s largest company by market value, to engage in questionable business practices. We can’t lay the outsourcing of U.S. jobs as a major phenomenon solely at the feet of Steve Jobs, but we can in part. Apples’ use of FoxConn, a major Chinese manufacturer, to make iPhones and iPads is well-known, as is the fact that FoxConn and many other Chinese companies regularly face child labor complaints and many other workers’ rights issues. Things got so bad at FoxConn in early 2012 that many workers threatened mass suicide if conditions weren’t improved.
I’m personally a little guilty about my Apple product-ophilia. I own just about everything Apple makes. As an Onion spoof of a fake Apple product (“the MacBook Wheel,” which was a notebook computer with no keyboard and, instead, just one big iPod wheel) had a fake Apple product lover state: “If it’s shiny and made by Apple I’ll buy it.” That’s pretty much me.
But my beautiful products have been tainted now by my knowledge of the pain and suffering that went into making these products so beautiful. I won’t give up my Apple products, but I do feel a bit better about my consumer choices now that Tim Cook and Jony Ive, apparently two clear non-assholes, are running the show at Apple.
— Tam Hunt is a Santa Barbara attorney, writer and aspiring filmmaker.