Sunday, January 27, 2013

Steve Jobs: Great visionary, inventor, marketing genius--why was he so mean?

One of Steve Jobs' great strengths was knowing how to focus. "Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do." Now there's some wisdom for all of us. At various times in my life and church, things have been so out-of-focus, and partly because either I or the church were doing too many things. At Apple, Jobs whittled everything down to just 2 or 3 innovative products being worked on at any one time.

Jobs also espoused the "team concept" and intentionally designed the Apple buildings and offices so that workers had to go some distance to the bathroom, walking across the atrium where there was coffee and lots of little areas to sit and chat. He wanted to force people out of their comfort zones so they had to "bump into" one another and possibly get inspired or energized by these purposely-designed encounters.

The greatest weakness of Steve Jobs' was how he treated and abused people, even in his own family. Jobs saw the world in binary terms. A person was either a HERO, or a BOZO. A product was either amazing or a piece of (fill in the blank). Products, ideas, even food was something that was either "the best thing ever," or it was crap, brain-dead, inedible. As a result, any perceived flaw could set off a rant. The finish on a piece of metal, the curve on the head of a screw, the shade of blue on a box--he would declare they they "completely suck" until that moment when he suddenly pronounced them "absolutely perfect."

Unfortunately, Steve's Zen Buddhism never produced in him a zen-like calm and inner serenity. He was tightly coiled, impatient, and made no effort to hide these flaws. The author, Walter Isaacson, writes, "Most people have a regulator between their mind and mouth that modulates their brutish sentiments and spikiest impulses. Not Jobs. He made a point of being brutally honest. "My job is to say when something sucks, rather than sugarcoat it," he said.

Andy Hertzfeld, one of the early Apple scientists who designed the Mac operating system, said, "The one question I'd truly love Steve to answer is, 'Why are you sometimes so mean?'" Even his family members wondered whether he simply lacked the filter that restrains people from venting their wounding thoughts or willfully bypassed it.

When finally asked this question, Jobs would simply claim, "This is who I am, and you cannot expect me to be someone I'm not."

The nasty edge to his personality was not necessary and it hindered him more than it helped him. He actually felt that berating and verbally attacking Apple team members would separate the A-team from the B-team and only leave him with the cream of the crop after all the weak ones who couldn't take it had dropped out, quit and gone to work elsewhere. He was left with some amazing talent who stuck it out, persevered and developed some revolutionary products, but he also drove away a boatload of talented folks who found a healthier work environment elsewhere.

Every now and then, a wise colleague would pull Jobs aside to try to get him to settle down. Lee Clow was a master at doing this. "Steve, can I talk to you?" He would quietly say after Jobs had belittled someone publicly. He would go into Jobs' office and explain how hard everyone was working. "When you humiliate them, it's more debilitating than stimulating," he said in one such session. Jobs would apologize and say he understood. But then he would lapse again. "It's simply who I am," he would say.

Steve Jobs was wrong. He didn't have to be the way he was. It was a choice that he continued to make day after day. His quest at Zen Buddhism and inner peace was elusive and had no impact on changing his life. In my next and final post, we'll look at how Steve Jobs approached his mortality once he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Did he feel secure in his beliefs or was he troubled about possibly not knowing God?

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