The Great Dictator

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Radoslav Dragov's picture

Even 4 years after his passing Steve Jobs’ star shines the brightest among the crowded field of inspirational business leaders and entrepreneurs. Just in the recent couple of months there have been an Apple-approved biography, a high-profile documentary and an expensive Hollywood biopic starring the likes of Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet. With the benefit of so much information we can have a glimpse of the dark side of his persona. Two inescapable facts immediately become apparent: Steve Jobs was a genius and a jerk of the highest order. The former boss of Apple revolutionised at least six industries but normal human behaviour always seems to elude him. These facts seem to make people uncomfortable as though these two traits cannot exist within the same person. If we disregarded such controversial personalities, then history books would be printed on brochures.

In the context of Steve Jobs as a role model it is important to ask whether his accomplishments are due to his deep character flaws or despite them. This is an important question because many ambitious people try to emulate his style in the hope of similar success. In his career Jobs looks like a follower of the philosophy “the end justifies the means” espoused by Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli was the Renaissance thinker who in his book “the Prince” advised rulers to use deceit and ruthlessness in order to acquire and hold on to power. That is why it is worth examining Steve Jobs’ controversial behaviour through the prism of Machiavelli’s thought. 

 

Love him or hate him

“Is it better to be loved or feared?” - this is one of the central questions that Machiavelli puts forward in “the Prince.” If Steve Jobs was asked this question he would have smacked you in the face and then fired you. Apple employees were afraid to ride the elevator with him because there was a non-negligible chance they would part with their job. When Jobs was not firing people he liked to employ vicious verbal attacks. He may had the reputation of an excellent orator, the Cicero of marketing, but in his everyday conduct Steve Jobs sounded more like a Tarantino character (but with less restraint on the explicit language). He was so devoted to the art of inspiring fear that he terrorised potential Apple employees by going to their job interviews and asking awkward and uncomfortable questions.

Machiavelli prefers fear because it is a sticky, reliable emotion that can be summoned with great ease. Love, brief and capricious, grows slowly in the hearts of subordinates. However, Machiavelli does not recommend senseless cruelty. The fear must be combined with courage and competency on the part of the leader. This creates a potent combination that we might call fearful respect. Steve Jobs augmented his remarkable abilities with audacity and verbal cruelty to turn potential hate into fierce loyalty. The lead designer at Apple Sir Jonathan Ive put it best: “you could have had somebody who didn’t ever argue, but you wouldn’t have the phones that you have now, and a whole list of other things[i].”

 

Perception is reality

Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are[ii].” In this famous quote Machiavelli stresses the importance of appearances over the reality of ones actions. This maxim pervades the life and career of Steve Jobs and by extension Apple products. While enrolling at a college Jobs forbade his parents from entering the campus and did not even say goodbye to them. Later he explained that he wanted to project the cool image of a wanderer with no roots.

Many people remain befuddled by the persona of Jobs and the impossible gulf between projected image and reality. The examples are numerous: from young Steve Jobs considered himself a rebel, yet he ruled Apple like a dictator with the pedantry of a clockmaker; he was a staunch follower of Zen Buddhism, yet his temper could power a whole city with electricity; in many interviews he claimed to have little to no interest in money, yet he short-changed a couple of the earliest Apple employees. Even his closest associates admit that Jobs was prone to take credit for other people’s work.

Steve Jobs was not only able to manipulate perception but reality itself. Often his employees would be ensnared into his “reality-distortion field” i.e. the ability to convince people of things that run contrary to their beliefs or even reality. Jobs’ supernatural power of conviction was perhaps his greatest strength. Sooner or later perceptions, even ones not based in reality, solidify into historical fact. Thus in the minds of many Steve Jobs remains a hippie, a rebel, and a lonesome tech genius. Even though his persona was a lot more complex and thus more interesting.

 

Unquestioned loyalty

The minister must never think about himself.” Machiavelli envisions a symbiosis where the unwavering loyalty of the ministers is rewarded with titles and money. In this regard Steve Jobs may have surpassed Machiavelli’s vision. The current CEO of Apple Tim Cook was so loyal that he offered part of his liver to the terminally ill Jobs (who was on a waiting list for a donor). Years earlier Jobs was a central figure in an informal agreement between four Silicon Valley giants (Apple, Google, Intel, Adobe) that prohibited the poaching of engineers. Needless to say this practice was illegal but it shows how much loyalty mattered.

Jobs could be very charitable with his staff especially if their families needed medical support. But in most cases he was cold and insensitive if the personal problems of employees interfered with the mission of Apple. Inertia and overreaching ambition were not tolerated under his rule. Jobs applied Darwinian principles by pitting employees against each other to see whose approach and ideas would prevail. He was an unwaveringly pragmatic man who always put the needs of Apple over any professional relationships. If some colleague, no matter how accomplished or loyal, was no longer important for the future of Apple, Jobs would quickly marginalise him or her. 

 

The one and only Steve Jobs

From the descriptions above one might think that Steve Jobs was a dictator with a dark streak of antisocial tendencies. Yes, of course, and there’re nothing unusual about that. Napoleon, who was no less ruthless, was one the greatest administrative geniuses of all time. The civil code created under his rule was used as a blueprint by many countries around the world. Figures like Steve Jobs embody strong character traits in such a way that they leave us wondering where is the line between ambition and greed, pragmatism and unscrupulousness, passion and obsession. It is simply impossible to pick apart such a spectrum of qualities without losing the essence. That is why there is no bad Steve or ingenious Steve, just Steve Jobs. Thus the question whether his “difficult” behaviour contributed to his accomplishments seems more and more irrelevant. If it wasn’t for his bad behaviour he wouldn’t be Steve Jobs.

Trying to emulate his style is not a good idea. My advice comes from a practical standpoint not a moral one. Jobs always followed one philosophy: impeccable design, attention to detail, marriage of software and hardware, premium prices and (semi)closed architecture. However, in the first half of his career this philosophy led to quite a few business failures. Lasting success came when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 and especially after the launch of the iPod. Steve Jobs did not adapt to the world, the world adapted to Steve Jobs. There are not many people with such an immense strength of will. Nevertheless, it is not hard to imagine an alternate reality where Apple does not manage to turn its fortune around. In “The Prince” Machiavelli pointed out that luck plays a huge part in success.

Talent like Steve Jobs is able to thrive in a very particular environment. Let’s not forget that Jobs was kicked out of his own company in 1985 because he did not want to compromise his vision. After he returned to Apple Jobs remade the company in such a way as to take full advantage of his distinct leadership style. Eager entrepreneurs cannot just copy his will, vision, instincts, and unique circumstances. They can only copy his bad behaviour but they will soon find out that in today’s world such conduct is tolerated less and less. Only geniuses get away with it and only sometimes. Thus the most practical (and safe) way to emulate Steve Jobs is wearing a black turtleneck and jeans. How about instead of trying to model ourselves on someone, we follow the advice of Apple’s legendary slogan: “Think Different.”

 

[i] Bradshaw, T. (October 8, 2015). “Steve Jobs’ legacy at Apple ‘hijacked’, says Ive”. FT.com. Retrieved from http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/64a495c0-6d5b-11e5-aca9-d87542bf8673.html#axzz3qA3YLu8R

[ii] Machiavelli, N. (1993). “The Prince” (1513). Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.

 

References: 

Machiavelli, N. (1993). “The Prince” (1513). Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.

Isaacson, W. (2011). “Steve jobs”. JC Lattès.

Schlender, B., & Tetzeli, R. (2015). “Becoming Steve Jobs”. Marabout.

Bradshaw, T. (October 8, 2015). “Steve Jobs’ legacy at Apple ‘hijacked’, says Ive”. FT.com. Retrieved from http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/64a495c0-6d5b-11e5-aca9-d87542bf8673.html#axzz3qA3YLu8R