Owen Edwards | Essays

A Demanding Man: Steve Jobs

It’s not easy being mean.

This, from a letter to The New York Times a couple of days after Steve Jobs died:

The ultimate measure of a human being is not the objects he produced but the way he treated other people — especially those over whom he had power or authority. And on that measure, Mr. Jobs fell short.”

Leaving aside the highly arguable point about how we measure human beings — whose personalities may ultimately matter far less than the things they create — I think that letting Jobs’s notorious tirades at those he thought were doing less than they were capable of overshadow his accomplishments indicates a softening of the disciplines of design and business that may help us all get along, but won’t necessarily produce the next iMac or iPad.

In a recent New Yorker, financial columnist James Surowiecki described perfectionism á la Jobs this way:

“Jobs believed that, for an object to resonate with consumers, every piece of it had to be right, even the ones you couldn’t see.”

Clearly, the gut impact of a product was a concern for Jobs; he had an instinct for designs that satisfy both the head and the heart. His belief that every little thing matters, and that a great product should resonate emotionally as well as technically — harks back to the great woodworkers of an earlier age, who felt that the inside of a drawer should be no less well-made and appealing than the outside. In his bedrock belief that everything matters, Jobs was more like a great architect than a corporate CEO. And getting the devilish details to behave is no easy thing to accomplish.

An editor and columnist for a Forbes technology magazine in the nineties, I heard lots of tales about Jobs and wrote quite a bit about him. From a photographer friend, Doug Menuez, a chronicler of Silicon Valley who did a remarkable photo essay about the development of the Newton, an ill-fated but important precursor to the iPhone, I got accounts of Steve’s volcanic tirades at engineers who somehow fell short of his vision (which almost everyone did sooner or later). There’s no question that he had a habit of publicly belittling anyone who presented a development the first time around. Those castigated would slink back to their cubicles, possibly dreaming of Mafia hits on the boss. But later they would come back with something better than what they’d thought was quite good enough just a few days before. As a result, perhaps, Jobs had good reason to feel that a good ass kicking was an effective way to raise the bar.

Discipline has taken on negative associations, especially in the abundant modern literature of raising children. And since there aren’t many people these days with much tolerance for being pushed around, the tough boss has become indistinguishable from the bad boss. So rather than fight the tide and try to prove that toughness can work better than tenderness in producing great product designs, let me suggest a little memory experiment. Think back to your favorite high school teacher, or rather the teacher you remember with the most respect. Was it that nice guy who wanted to be everyone’s best friend, the one who gave you A’s for what you pretty much knew was B work at best (or maybe not even that good)? Or was it the unsmiling, hard-to-please man or woman who demanded that you knock yourself out to reach a level of comprehension you wouldn’t have thought possible? The teacher I remember most fondly was an implacable taskmaster who taught music and choral singing. She was so tough that even jocks joined the choir and showed up an hour early for school every day of the week. If you made dumb mistakes or slacked off, she was merciless. But she had us singing Bach and Beethoven so well that we were invited to perform all over the East Coast. I doubt that anyone who had her for a teacher has ever forgotten her.

At some low ebb in my life, I was desperate enough to join the Marine Corps, where discipline has a very favorable meaning. The rigorous curriculum of Parris Island was administered for my training platoon by one Gunnery Sergeant Wells, a formidable drill instructor who had come back from Korea with a bronze star but had left behind a couple of fingers. Wells never let up, and though long on demands and punishment he was extremely short on praise or rewards. But those of us who survived his hellish 13-week ministrations left the island with self-confidence that would never have sprung up by chance. If he had gone easy on us, would we have ended up as a few good men? I doubt it. Much later in my life I had the great luck to work at CBS magazines under the editorial eagle eye of Harold Hayes, the legendary editor of Esquire in one of its finest incarnations. Harold could be an ogre if the magazine you happened to be working on was not up to his old Esquire standards. And he was troubled by a bad back in those days, which didn’t make him any less abrasive. But we did some terrific work for him, at least in part because we were afraid not to.

I’ve been a boss on several occasions, and I have to admit that I’ve been, aside from a few temper tantrums, a soft touch. Partly it’s because I believe in treating people well, but largely it’s been because I’m fairly lazy, and it takes a lot more energy to be demanding than to settle for good enough – or just to take on a job oneself instead of pouncing, Jobs-style, on someone who should have done it better. The Sergeant Wellses and Harold Hayses of the world don’t allow shirking the hard labor of perfectionism, in themselves and in others.

As for the Times letter-writer’s contention that how we treat people matters more than what we produce and leave behind, well, that’s just complete crap. We don’t know a lot about William Shakespeare, but do we care whether he was nice to his fellow actors? What we care about is Hamlet and King Lear. General George Patton was a well-documented son of a bitch to serve under, but he defeated Erwin Rommel, one of Germany’s greatest military leaders, and his Third Army in Europe captured more territory in less time than any force in history. So some might wish that Steve Jobs had been the Mr. Rogers of innovation, but as I write these words on my Mac, as I have written everything on a Mac for the past 27 years, I can only be grateful that he was so very hard to please.

Posted in: History, Technology

Comments [7]

I think there's a wide gulf between being a "Mr. Rogers" and being an a$$hole. Forcing the pendulum to one end or another doesn't really acknowledge the vast middle ground of different effective leadership styles.

Not to take away from Jobs' accomplishments, but there is an underlying assumption here that only jerks are the ones who get the most out of people. Do you mean to say that there's no way to be tough and demanding without belittling people and moving them to tears? In my experience there are many ways to demand the best from others without sacrificing mutual respect and decency. Steve Jobs had many talents, but it doesn't seem like people skills were among them.
Tim Lapetino

My most effective teachers, in all walks of life, have shown me that you can have high expectations, exacting standards, and be extremely critical without belittling, humiliating, or being cruel to people. You can be demanding and push people to their creative limits, criticize them when they aren't performing, and still maintain a respectful environment. I tend to think Jobs may have even accomplished more had he maintained his standards, but came from a more respectful place.

Lastly, because your post compares Jobs and Mr. Rogers, I feel compelled to share this article:

While not a design hero, I think one could argue he is a tough and exacting man who changed the lives of many.

Lisa S.

I have to echo Owen's sentiment. Who gives a shit if Steve was incredibly nice. He did it his way. And it worked. Well.

Also, Steve didn't hire assholes or people who didn't treat other people respectfully.
Felix Sockwell

I don't doubt that his ways were effective in getting the most out of his employees, but you make it sound as it is the only way - a notion I struggle to believe in.

Also, I'm grateful for everything his company has brought us - but glossing over these kinds of issues because the iSomething is just so good, is not something I'd agree with. I dont mean we shouldnt enjoy the ipads but I'm afaid that when decisions come, we strive to get better ipads instead of happier people. Or that we reach a point where iPads are what make people happy.

^ i love the comments. very good points everyone. steve jobs never took the credit for himself. in interviews he always said he couldnt do it if he didnt have all the great people at Apple and even the familes that support them. i think his leadership approach is not the only way to get things done (more ways to skin a cat)..but it was his way and it worked..it gave us what we have today from Apple. any other leader or approach and the outcome would have been different (input/output). it is what it is. and i think even the workers at Apple are grateful to have had rigorous demanding work from a boss with STANDARDS

Walter Isaacson quotes Jobs saying a couple of times that his anger was part of who he was. Someone who spent as much time as Jobs did with Buddhist teachers would have heard many times that his anger was a result of fear and ego, and that fear and ego work against the intuition Jobs valued highly.

Isaacson describes Jobs's tantrums but gives little analysis or explanation for it. Jobs was a complex human being, like almost all of us.
john massengale

I agree with Mr. Edwards that in the perspective of history it does not matter how our greatest innovators treated their contemporaries. These personal transgressions usually do not survive the passage of time except among those who were directly affected. It is their achievements that stand as their legacy and contribution to humanity. On the other hand, anyone who has taken college-level business courses knows that an effective manager must be able to treat their employees fairly and respectfully in order to be a successful leader. Speaking from personal experience, I have witnessed the validity of this theory and have also been able to apply it in my own career.

Many years ago (around the time the first Macintosh came out) I was a young design student subjected to a particularly abrasive professor. This individual had been a great designer, but not the greatest people person. In hindsight I can appreciate his high standards of perfectionism and their influence on my work today. At the time, the verbal abuse my fellow students and I received was not at all pleasant, and the increasing number of those dropping out eventually lead to his departure from the college. My point is that fame is usually blind to ethics. Those lucky enough to achieve fame can afford to be callous. The rest of us need to watch our treatment of others regardless of our level of genius. No legacy is worth the repercussions of bad karma.

Jobs | June 17