Let me first acknowledge that I have never been a fan of Apple products. However, this is not because I have a problem with the product as much as the fact that I have always felt that they were over-priced. A Dell PC does all that I need to do at a third of the price. Perhaps the Apple operating system is less buggy and the interface is more streamlined. I will also concede that the three members of my family who are computer savvy – namely my son, my son-in-law and my younger brother – are unreservedly Apple fans.

Having said this, it does not take away from the fact that the late Steve Jobs was a creative genius. I have heard comparisons of Jobs’ creative talents with that of Thomas Edison and I suspect that it is not too far off the mark. The description of Jobs as “a genius and a jerk” is a loose paraphrasing of how Walter Isaacson, the author of the recent best selling biography of Jobs, describes him – a description that others have used since his biography was released.

Isaacson was co-opted by Jobs to write his biography and he (Jobs) was encouraged by wife, Laurene, to make sure that any biography had both his positive and negative attributes. Jobs did just that and so the end result is one that shows a man of great talents and great flaws. Jobs always claimed that although he could be scathing in his criticism of others, he was willing to accept the same of himself. He died before the release of the biography so we will never know how he would have reacted to what Isaacson said about him. The one clue we have is when he told Isacson shortly before he died that he (Jobs) assumed that there would be unflattering things said about him that he would not like – which Issacson affirmed. Whereupon Jobs said that he would not read the biography for a year to allow his passions to cool down.

Isaacson describes Jobs as capable of being downright obnoxious and mean in his dealings with people. He could be petty and almost unreasonably demanding, insensitive to others even though he was himself a sensitive person and displayed his own emotions openly. Despite his unreasonableness and lack of management skills in the conventional sense, he was capable of engendering tremendous loyalty – and even affection – from those who worked for him. Several key executives stayed with him through the years. Even in his personal life, these contradictions would surface: for years he would not accept a daughter. Lisa, that he fathered when he was single from a woman with whom he was involved. He continued to suggest that he might not be her father even after a paternity test proved he was. Though he later reconciled with her and they became close. This is all the more amazing because he was himself given up for adoption because his birth parents did not want the responsibility of raising him. His biographer has said that this rejection by his birth parents had a profound effect on him and probably shaped many aspects of his personality both positive and negative.

His relationship with women in general showed the same erratic and insensitive streak that he did in other facets of his life. Maureen Dowd offers a less than flattering perspective of his attitude and behavior to women:

“Chrisann Brennan, the mother of Jobs’s oldest child, Lisa, told Isaacson that being put up for adoption left Jobs “full of broken glass.” He very belatedly acknowledged Lisa and their relationship was built, Isaacson says, on “layers of resentment.”

He could be hard on women. Two exes scrawled mean messages on his walls. As soon as he learned that his beautiful, willowy, blonde girlfriend, Laurene Powell, was pregnant in 1991, he began musing that he might still be in love with the previous beautiful, willowy, blonde girlfriend, Tina Redse.

“He surprised a wide swath of friends and even acquaintances by asking them what he should do,” Isaacson writes. “ ‘Who was prettier,’ he would ask, ‘Tina or Laurene?’ ” And “who should he marry?”

Isaacson notes that Jobs could be distant at times with the two daughters he had with Laurene (though not the son). When one daughter dreamed of going to the Oscars with him, he blew her off.

Andy Hertzfeld, a friend and former Apple engineer, lent Lisa $20,000 when she thought her father was not going to pay her Harvard tuition. Jobs paid it back to his friend, but Lisa did not invite him to her Harvard graduation.

“The key question about Steve is why he can’t control himself at times from being so reflexively cruel and harmful to some people,” Hertzfeld said. “That goes back to being abandoned at birth.”

He almost always wore black turtlenecks and jeans. (Early on, he scorned deodorant and went barefoot and had a disturbing habit of soaking his feet in the office toilet.)

Yet he sometimes tried to ply his exquisite taste to remake the women in his life.

When he was dating the much older Joan Baez — enthralled by her relationship with his idol, Bob Dylan — he drove her to a Ralph Lauren store in the Stanford mall to show her a red dress that would be “perfect” for her. But one of the world’s richest men merely showed her the dress, even after she told him she “couldn’t really afford it,” while he bought shirts.

When he met his sister, Mona Simpson, a struggling novelist, as an adult, he berated her for not wearing clothes that were “fetching enough” and then sent her a box of Issey Miyake pantsuits “in flattering colors,” she said.”

Jobs had a total conviction that not only did he know what the consumer wanted but that he knew what the the consumer SHOULD want ….. and it was this belief and conviction that would shape some of the products that Apple made. In the process, Apple products ended up changing the landscape of consumer products whether it was the iPod, the iPhone or the iPad.

The other aspect that surfaced was that despite the wealth and success that Jobs achieved, his life-style changed little. He lived in the same house that he had lived for years without any of the trappings that one associates with his great wealth. In fact, Jobs was disapproving and turned off by how money had changed some others at Apple who ended up very wealthy with ostentatious purchases like mansions and Rolls Royce cars, etc. Conspicuous consumption was certainly not something that Jobs indulged in and in this respect he was very similar to Warren Buffet who despite being one of the wealthiest men in the world never changed his life-style to any marked degree ….. or Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, who still drove a pick-up truck right to the end of his life.

Jobs explained his abrasive nature in dealing with people and his employees as being, in part, because he did not believe in sugar-coating things and felt that being brutally candid about how he felt especially when it came to his expectations of products being designed at Apple was the best way to ensure an excellent product. Certainly based on his record at Apple, his method worked though one has to wonder whether the same result could not have been accomplished with a less abrasive approach.

What is interesting is that Jobs allowed his biographer to write a book about him with his full cooperation and encouraged Issacson to disclose the warts and all in the process. This certainly happened and one has to wonder what his motivation was in encouraging an account of his life which in some respects is not flattering. Perhaps it was a form of catharsis as he realized that he was nearing the end of his life. Perhaps, like in every thing else, he felt the sort of candor that he was famous for in his dealings with people was something that he should also be willing to face when it came to criticism of aspects of his personality and life.

I have been fortunate in my working life that I have not had a boss who had Jobs management style. I am not even sure that it is necessary to function the way Jobs did in order to accomplish results. What I will say is that of the CEOs’ I worked with whether closely or tangentially, I had some exposure to a couple who were outstandingly successful – and were quite similar to Jobs in some respects. They were very demanding, put down their direct reports in public, would yell at them and made unreasonable demands on them. One was in India and the other was in the US. Their direct reports were terrified of them and their brilliance was acknowledged. Neither suffered fools gladly and both lacked sensitivity when it came to dealing with employees. One went on to become a major figure in industry within India and later in Europe. While I worked in the same company, one of the direct reports of this individual died of a heart attack and he would not attend the funeral because he said that the man was dead and no useful purpose was served in attending his funeral when he had other work priorities to take care of – he went out of town for a meeting. The CEO in the US went on to become a very successful venture capitalist who took several companies public and in the process made a lot of employees of the companies in which he invested, very wealthy. Both these individuals were greatly respected and despite their failings viewed with affection by some who worked with them – though others were less forgiving. Interestingly, the one in the US was also an adopted child – like Jobs.

In the aftermath of Jobs’ death, there has been an outpouring of admiration and accolades for his accomplishments – as well as some brickbats. I suspect over the coming months we will hear more reports of the “dark side” of his life.

Whatever his personal foibles he, in a sense, remade the way that consumers view facets of their life when it comes to technology and in the process took a company that was verging on bankruptcy when he returned to its helm and turned it into one of the most successful companies in the world.

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3 Responses to ““A genius and a jerk””

  1. Larry says:

    SJ is over-rated. A guy who dealt with people like he did would be viewed as a total jerk. He was a marketer who knew how to package products and that is about it.

  2. Peter says:

    Jobs was brilliant at what he did and for sure made products which were top notch and definitely torch bearer in mobile technology, just as Zuckerberg is of social networking. Was he a technocrat? no, but then who would remember a technocrat someone like Dennis Ritchie the inventor of the C programming language, who died recently unheralded and unheard of… C the foundation of almost everything computer-program related.

  3. Dilip says:

    To quote another blogger: “Edison changed lives, Jobs changed lifestyles”

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