I come to bury Steve Jobs, not to praise him.
Don't get me wrong: I love Apple products. I use them daily, and they’ve made my life easier, better, and more fun. Steve Jobs’ business accomplishments are truly remarkable, and will surely be taught in business schools for decades. The encomiums to him in the newspapers are fitting tribute to his life and career.
Nevertheless, for the business world to lionize him so fervently creates two significant risks for other leaders.
The first risk is that we encourage CEOs to act like him—a dangerous proposition when you’re talking about a charismatic leader. Yes, Steve was visionary, unswervingly committed to perfection, and elicited Herculean efforts from his employees. Let’s not forget, though, that he was also a micromanager and a bully. He had the final decision not just on his all-important products, but on less essential issues, such as the design of the shuttle buses that took employees to and from San Francisco, and on what food would be served in the cafeteria. He humiliated employees in public and abused those who didn’t meet his standards. He once told an engineer that he while he had “baked a really lovely cake,” he “frosted it in dog sh*t.” Edward Eigerman, a former Apple engineer, said that more than anywhere else he had worked before or since, there’s real concern about being fired.
Steve could get away with that kind of behavior both because of his charisma and because Apples was his company, with his DNA inextricably implanted in the culture. That’s not true for most CEOs, however, no matter how accomplished they are: not Sam Palmisano at IBM, not Andrea Jung at Avon, not Jim Sinegal at Costco. My guess is that if they dove as deeply into the details of every facet of the company—if Sinegal had made the decision about the exact pantone of the signs in the food court—he’d end up with a bunch of demoralized people who grumbled about absurd micromanagement. And what about the current belief that innovation depends upon the ability to “fail fast”? Good luck nurturing a creative environment when failure is stigmatized and your staff lives in fear of getting fired. Finally, consider you don’t have to be a bully to be an effective leader: as Jim Collins pointed out in Built To Last, a “humble,” “modest,” “unobtrusive and soft-spoken” gentleman named William McKnight guided 3M for 52 years and turned the company into a colossus.
The second risk is subtler, but equally pernicious. By canonizing Steve, we make ourselves feel inescapably inferior, and diminish our own ability to achieve greatness. I call this the “founding fathers” complex. Elevating the founding fathers of the United States above the status of ordinary men creates the belief that we can’t attain the same grand and noble heights that they did. We end up bemoaning the feckless, unworthy politicians that our era produces, and despair of producing leaders equal to the challenge of our times. (Although, given the failure of the latest super-committee to agree on a deficit cutting strategy, I’m beginning to wonder.)
Yet the founding fathers were human, no more nor less than we. John Adams could be petulant, petty, and prone to holding grudges. Thomas Jefferson kept slaves, had a mistress, and while serving as Adams’ vice president, did everything he could to—secretly—undermine his boss. These were great men to be sure, but they had their own faults and weaknesses that they strove mightily to overcome. If we ignore those flaws and accord them superhuman abilities, then we doom ourselves to permanently diminished expectations, cripple our faith in our own capabilities, and needlessly cap our potential accomplishments.
Steve Jobs was a consummate salesman, a remarkable CEO, and a true visionary. By all means, celebrate his accomplishments. Marvel at his performance. But he wasn’t a god. Elevating him to Mt. Olympus does both him and us a disservice.