Assholes in Business: A Contrary Perspective on Apple

Over the last week, the universe has been working a little serendipitously. My last post here explored whether Apple — and more specifically, Steve Jobs — was a case study in whether you had to be an asshole to succeed in business. Almost as if in reply, Walter Isaacson (the author of the renowned biography, Steve Jobs) published a blog post on what he sees as the leadership lessons of Steve Jobs.

In the blog post, Isaacson tackles head-on the question of whether or not Steve Jobs was, to use my vernacular, an asshole to those around him. He argues that this wasn’t the case. In his view, “His petulance and impatience were part and parcel of his perfectionism.” He accompanies this with many examples where his pushiness, assertiveness, demanding nature and belligerence produced exceptional results.

His argument is interesting, in that Isaacson basically asserts that it was the combination of perfectionism, petulence and inspiration that allowed him to succeed as well as he did. Which raises two questions: Firstly, was Isaacson also sucked into the famed ‘Reality Distortion Field’ of Steve Jobs? And secondly, to revisit my theme of the last few days, is being an asshole really part of being successful?

Part of the essential question that we have not addressed, of course, is, “What do we mean by ‘asshole’?” I got asked that the other day, and was actually somewhat taken aback. There is a presumption that we all know what it means. That, like pornography, we might not be able to fully define it, but, “We know it when we see it.” The challenge is, if we’re going to debate a point, we really ought to understand what that point means.

In my view, an asshole is someone that gets their way, regardless of its impact on others. Who doesn’t care about those around them, and will walk past, around or over those who get in their way. Who lacks empathy and consideration, and doesn’t see why one would bother with either.

By that definition, Steve Jobs would arguably score a ‘yes’ on most fronts. As Isaacson himself acknowledges, “Jobs was famously impatient, petulant and tough with the people on those around them.” In so doing, he got what he wanted. There are enough stories of enough instances that clearly this approach wasn’t always well received. And he always said it like he saw it, regardless of how that was going to be judged on the receiving end. In fact, he prided himself in it. Jobs is quoted as saying, “…if I think something sucks, I tell people to their face. It’s my job to be honest.”

What is probably important to recognize is that there was a point to Jobs’ ‘terrorizing’, as Steve Wozniak characterized it. It was to achieve the impossible, on a regular and routine basis. He consistently pushed people — whether employees or suppliers — to give him what he wanted, when he wanted it, and he didn’t take no for an answer. For every argument of why something couldn’t be done, there was a counter-argument. Generally, Jobs won. And in retrospect, he was often right.

This is probably the greatest caution in taking the need to be pushy and prickly as a model for success. It is very easy to take the surface appearance of behaviour, and simply mimic. Any one of us, if we can turn off the empathy switch, can go out there and be an asshole. The challenge is that success at Apple didn’t simply come from working in a sea of unreasonable expectations. Where Job focussed his attention was on what needed to be improved, what was compromising solutions being as perfect as he envisioned them being. People were a vehicle to attaining that perfection; they weren’t just simply punching bags.

When Oliver Stone filmed the original “Wall Street”, he intended it as a cautionary tale. Gordon Gecko was presented as an anti-hero. The memorable line, “Greed is good. Greed is great. Greed works,” was intended as over the top satire. A generation of business school students, however, subsequently modelled themselves on the movie, wanting to be the next Gordon Gecko. And what was bad about Wall Street, the place, just got a little bit worse.

It would be sad if the same thing happens here. If the next generation of business leaders think that success is about simply being an asshole, about being unreasonable in expectations because, “That’s what leaders do.” Jobs worked side-by-side with his people to understand the problems, to see potential solutions, and to maintain the clarity of vision that he was trying to accomplish. He set expectations because he could see them being realized, and knew they could be. He got away with it because he was that good at managing the macro-level vision and the micro-level details in ways that few others have ever replicated. THAT is what good leaders do. Aspire first to be that good, not to behave that obnoxiously.

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