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, thought….Read Thomas Watson's full bio

5 responses on “Why We Shouldn’t Romanticize Steve Jobs

  1. Cyrus

    It is refreshing to read a contrarian view against the tendency to idolize past leaders. He should, however, not be bench-marked against the philanthropy of other tycoons. Apple’s wealth creation in terms of jobs created, taxes paid, pensions strengthened, and productivity enhancements experienced by millions daily are a significant boon to society.

  2. Chris Albinson

    While I don’t like the idea of romanticizing any leader, this critique of Jobs is just dead wrong.

    This line of thinking is also part of the “balanced” leadership approach that is leading directly to the lack of innovation and risk taking in most of the corporations Ivey grads find themselves and the resulting slow destruction of shareholder value.

    Steve Jobs (Apple & Pixar) is just one example of what it takes to innovate at a global scale at speed. Other start-up leaders like Drew Houston (Dropbox), Garret Camp (Uber & Stumble Upon), Jack Dorsey (Twitter & Square), Jack Ma (Alibaba), Lei Jun
    (Xiaomi) and Elon Musk (Tesla & SpaceX) all share Job’s gift of thinking big and a passion for design. They all have faced the similar criticisms of their character.

    These start ups with now $30+ billions in revenue between them growing globally at over 50% compounded are radically changing and disrupting multiple industries where “balanced” leadership has provided decades of limited value to shareholders or society.

    The personal attacks on Job’s character are classic hack, and sadly all too often Canadian trait, of degrading risk taking and success vs. celebrating it.

    The article left me feeling like we were listening to a defense of the buggy whip industry in the face of Henry Ford and his automobile. Ford also faced tremendous personal attacks on his character.

    As to the personal choices around philanthropic giving, they are just that personal. It is admirable what Buffet and Gates are doing, but not a reason to denigrate Jobs. Not to mention the odd comparison of Jobs business leadership to Buffet and Gates philanthropic giving. Any thoughtful look at Buffet and Gates will show neither to be saints.

    Lastly, the global impact of Twitter, Alibaba, SpaceX, Tesla, Uber, and the 80 other Unicorns will be profound and significant drivers of global growth and prosperity in a world where there is not much growth and certainly not enough prosperity.

    Sadly, all of these companies are in the United States and China. Even though some of which are run by Canadians and even have Canadian founders. Why has Ivey has not produced any of these kind of leaders or founders? Stanford, Michigan, and Harvard have all produced innovative leaders on a repeated basis. This should be the question Ivey wrestles with relating to leadership. Not denigrating the leadership and attacking the character of Mr. Jobs.

    Long live the passionate, the risk takers, and the imbalanced! Steve Jobs and those like him are great and inspiring role models for future business leaders. I hope Ivey takes a more balanced perspective on this than this post. I enjoy the IBJ, but this article was very disappointing.

    A perspective from an Ivey grad in San Francisco.

  3. Thomas Watson, Editor IBJ

    Hey Chris,

    Thank you for reading Ivey Business Journal and commenting on Why We Should Not Romanticize Steve Jobs, an opinion piece written by me.

    You insist that I am dead wrong about how we should look at Apple’s brilliant co-founder. And you could be right, which is why under my watch IBJ is open to publishing interesting insights from different perspectives (providing submissions are clear and reasonably respectful when issuing criticism).

    Now, of course, I don’t think I am wrong in this case. But before I explain why, it is important to note that I have no influence whatsoever over the teachings or focus of the Ivey Business School.

    For the record, nobody at Ivey tells me what to write or publish. Although I occasionally work on Ivey-branded projects, such as case studies, I am a professional journalist employed to serve as editor of an independent publication. In other words, my opinions are my own and not encouraged or censored by anyone. So please understand that the commentary on Jobs that you dislike has nothing to do with Ivey Business School or its policies.

    That said, ever since the financial crisis, Ivey research has focused on leader character and the importance of having executives with internal checks and balances. I agree with that, but having a relatively balanced character does not rule out passionate risk taking; it improves it. That’s my opinion. I stand by it.

    As for my comments about Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, I never said they were saints. Keep in mind that my commentary on Jobs was written in response to the idea that Jobs’ character somehow made him a better business leader (and contributor to society) than Gates and Buffett, not to mention a leader worth emulating. I admire everything that Jobs accomplished, but I simply don’t believe anyone openly disrespectful to others should be used as a role model. So I noted how Gates and Buffett deployed their wealth and suggested this should count when being judged against Jobs. I stand by that opinion as well.

    Thanks again for reading, Thomas Watson, IBJ Editor

  4. Umakant Jani

    An article titled “Which Characteristics Aspiring Leaders Should Not Own from Steve Jobs” (or some kind like that) would have made this article more sense than “Why We Shouldn’t Romanticize Steve Jobs”. I have no issue with the content. But I wouldn’t start an article about a leader like Steve Jobs like the way you labelled it, because it makes me think you hate Steve before even I reading your facts about him (in reality you may not hate him).

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