Why We Shouldn’t Romanticize Steve Jobs

Image of Steve Jobs

Investors and consumers alike were clearly excited to learn in early March that Apple was readying itself to launch its first new product in five years, a smartwatch costing from US$350 to more than US$10,000. In fact, the news helped convince Wall Street analyst Brian White to raise his share price target on Apple stock to US$180. If that bullish prediction proves accurate, the company founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in 1976 will soon be a trillion-dollar enterprise.

Apple made about US$39 billion in net income on US$183 billion in record sales last year, so it is safe to say the company can still make money hand over fist without the help of Jobs, who passed away in 2011 shortly after handing the leadership torch to current Apple CEO Tim Cook. Whether or not the company can still disrupt industries like it did under its former leader is another question. But Apple’s past success, not to mention its consumer loyalty and multi-billion-dollar war chest, is clearly enough to scare the heck out of managers of any business with potential to become the “apple” of the tech giant’s future growth plans. Just ask anyone with a C-suite position at a car company about Project Titan, the Apple codename for tentative plans to enter the auto market.

Apple’s power to invoke fear in other industries is directly related to Jobs’s success as a market disruptor. But while the consumer adoption rates of the revolutionary products created under his leadership are worth trying to emulate, the character of the man in question is not. I feel a need to make this point after management columnist Harvey Schachter introduced me to The Business Romantic, a new book by Tim Leberecht. Simply put, the San Francisco-based marketing professional sees a need for more so-called business romantics, arguing they tend to have an obsessive kind of generosity that aims to help others foster an “emotional engagement with the world.”

I have no problem with that. But Leberecht sees Jobs as one of the business world’s ultimate romantic heroes, and his comments imply that this somehow makes him a better business leader and contributor to society than more button-down types such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, which is why Schachter’s column was entitled “Are you a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs?”

On this point, I beg to differ.

As an author of MBA case studies, I agree that the world can learn a lot from Apple’s legendary co-founder, who was clearly passionate about design and product quality. But you can argue that Jobs was initially driven to succeed by his massive ego more than any altruistic desire to help other people engage with the world via beautiful products. And even if Jobs cared only about improving the lot of consumers, his leader character was not necessarily pedestal-worthy.

Working with Ivey Business School professor Mary Crossan, I made this point in two Apple case studies designed to evoke debate about models of strategy, organization and leadership. The A case looks at Apple from an analytic perspective, giving Jobs credit where credit is due, while the B case steps back and notes that a lot of Apple’s success can actually be attributed to happenstance and good fortune. The latter case also raises real questions about Jobs’s leadership.

There is no question that Jobs influenced and inspired the world. But that doesn’t change the fact that he had a long list of character flaws. Jobs often acted like a child, not to mention a self-centered jerk. Indeed, according to numerous sources, he had no problem taking credit for work done by others or denying the paternity of his daughter Lisa while she lived with her mother on welfare or using parking spaces reserved for handicapped individuals or deceiving his best friend (Wozniak) to short-change him on money he had earned. While the level of Jobs’s charitable giving remains open to debate, he declined an invitation to join The Giving Pledge, a campaign spearheaded by Gates and Buffett to encourage other members of the Richie Rich crowd to give away most of their wealth to charity in their lifetime.

Perhaps Montreal-based marketing executive Mitch Joel said it best. In a blog posted after he had read the Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, Joel pointed out that trying to program other company leaders to act like Apple’s late co-founder would be both impossible and highly questionable because the company’s success was an anomaly, at least in part, and Jobs was a rather “unique” leader. By unique, of course, Joel made it clear that he meant Jobs was not someone he would even try to model himself after.

Now, I know that that there is a new soon-to-be-released unofficial biography on Jobs that aims (with plenty of help from Apple) to counter Isaacson’s take on the subject, arguing that the early stereotype of Jobs as a “half-genius, half-jerk” only stuck around after 1987 because of restricted press access to the man. Maybe Jobs did mellow over the years. Then again, Isaacson — a former managing editor of Time — had plenty of access to Jobs, who handpicked Isaacson to pen his official biography, so I have no idea if history needs a serious rewrite. But either way, I do know that it is important to consider much more than a person’s brilliance, drive and success at wealth creation when defining business heroes.

The bottom line is that when a businessperson has a well-balanced character with internal checks and balances, he or she tends to need less help from Lady Luck, which is why numerous Ivey Business Journal articles on leader character note that competencies and commitment are just the price of admission when it comes to the sustainable leadership game.

Jobs did not have a well-balanced character. He was volatile. And if truth be told, the man’s burning passion for design caused him to fail as a businessperson more than once. So while there are plenty of reasons to admire what he accomplished, not to mention respect his brilliant salesmanship and abilities as a consumer product visionary, I do not think it is a good idea to romanticize Jobs as a role model for future business leaders.

I also think people should think twice before placing Jobs’s influence on society above the contributions made by less cool billionaires.

I own an iPhone and an iPad. I watch Apple TV. So Steve Jobs clearly influenced my life. But while I am truly amazed by the quality of these products, I still often worry about the long-term social impact of these devices. And that’s not something I can say about the philanthropic generosity of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

About the Author

Ivey Business Journal editor Thomas Watson is a veteran business journalist and executive development consultant with decades of senior-level experience spanning management education,….Read Thomas Watson's full bio