We need to talk about Steve Jobs

It's time for much deeper insights into the character of Steve Jobs

Apple, Steve Jobs, CEO, John Couch, leadership
IDG

I’m angry about it, really. The treatment around Steve Jobs, in books, in movies and on TV seems to depict him as part-genius, part-ogre, and seldom looks at him as Steve Jobs: Human.

Who benefits from that?

I can’t help but wonder who gains from such diluted biography. People can’t solve big problems if the culture they work in means they’ll be fried to a crisp for making a mistake.

That’s why people put money into Jobs or Musk.

Companies that work together well grow while those with inadequate management inevitably shrink.

I spoke at length with Apple VP education John Couch this week. We discussed many of the concepts in his highly recommended book Rewiring Education, which I’ll be returning to soon.

During our chat, I couldn’t help but reflect that how some of his ideas about education somehow reflect how I think Apple works. Challenge, collaboration and working without a manual, because there isn’t one. Trusting people with the freedom to make mistakes. Trusting people to fix them.

Thinking inside the box

The questions I have is if the angry, vengeful, prickly and really rather two-dimensional character that so many seem to portray Steve Jobs to have been would really have been capable of inspiring Woz to engineer the Apple 1?

Would such a person really have persuaded the Macintosh team to risk their jobs under the pirate flag because doing so was “better than joining the navy?”

Could such a horrible (and the person so many of these so-called biographies describe is rather horrible) person have got his teams to make the iPhone? Pixar? Or even NeXT OS?

I don’t think so.

I believe the prevailing analysis of Jobs’ character serves to create a dose of mediocrity from his dazzle of something like genius.

This lazy, cliché-crowded pastiche means too many managers and employers still think inside the box. The two-dimensional myths enable them to argue that the hostile and ineffective working environments they create are inspired by how Jobs managed his teams. They may think it’s true. Much of the fiction tells them it is true, but the achievements of the teams he led provides no evidence to support these claims.

A toxic culture is not a creative culture.

The power of trust

Couch put it this way. “He [Steve Jobs] didn't manage by fear, he managed by belief in you... that you could do it. A lot of us would take a long walk off a short pier for him because of that...”

Thinking about this, it seems to me that Jobs’ demanding requests were driven by powerful belief in the capacity of humans to meet and solve big problems. I think Jobs believed in everyone’s potential. That is why his life’s work focused on providing tools people could use to realize that potential. “Steve saw technologies amplifying your individual creative ability,” said Couch.

A person who can build a company around such complex motivations is most certainly not the self-centred cypher so many reduce his memory too.

I believe it is way past time for people to be given a deeper and more nuanced glimpse into his humanity. I believe such insight will unlock other people’s talent, to the benefit of everybody. I also say that the current traduced myths about the man benefits nothing other than the maintenance of a failing economic and societal status quo. "Furthur," as another writer used to say.

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