The Price of Focusing Too Much on ‘Greatness’
So yet another Steve Jobs movie came out a few months ago. I think that makes four of them now, which I believe is two more than necessary in order for a person to be properly mythologized. If there is a fifth movie (and there probably will be), then it will depict a youthful Jobs painstakingly building the first Apple computer in a bucolic barnyard shed, constructing it from parts he collected when an alien spaceship fortuitously crash-landed in a nearby field.
Once we have chosen our heroes, we can rarely get enough of them – and more importantly, we rarely spend any time thinking about the things they could have done better. By now it is overwhelmingly obvious how brilliant Jobs was. He built incredible machines, and he then made those machines into the most-loved consumer brand of our time. PC users use a PC; Apple users, on the other hand, have a relationship with their devices. Tell a Mac lover that you don’t like the user interface, and they’ll look at you like you just insulted their mother. That’s how attached people are to the things Jobs created.
There’s no denying he was a genius. But there’s also no denying that he was a difficult person to work with. Angry, uncompromising, monomaniacal, jealous, acid-tongued – all of these adjectives and more have been used to describe him, and with good reason.
The interesting thing (to me, at least) is that most of us take this trade-off as part of the deal. Jobs was a genius, and he was difficult to work with – well of course he was difficult to work with, he was a genius! We assume that brilliance comes with a set of eccentricities that are a necessary component of that brilliance. If Jobs wasn’t so much of a jerk, the logic goes, he wouldn’t have accomplished what he did.
It’s impossible to say whether that’s true or not; we know only what happened, not what might have been. But let’s look at two things he didn’t accomplish:
- Outside of Tony Fadell (who was brought into the Apple family from outside, rather than built up from within), Apple has not produced a single stand-out individual. There are people who began their careers at Google and Microsoft (Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Meyer) who later went on to do great things themselves. Apple? Not so much.
- For all its vaunted consumer loyalty, employee disloyalty at Apple (and several other tech companies, to be fair) became such a problem in the early 2000s that Jobs conspired with several of his competitors to fix wages at an artificially low (and illegal) level in order to discourage employee mobility.
I don’t mean to suggest that Jobs wasn’t a visionary, or that his accomplishments aren’t extraordinary. But I do mean to suggest that he could have done things even better, and the reason he didn’t is because he spent 100% of his energy focused on his vision and 0% focused on the human side of leadership.
Most people argue that being a “good” leaders doesn’t matter, since “great” leaders achieve greatness. But that’s only in retrospect. For every Jobs, there are dozens if not hundreds of so-called “great” leaders whose companies never get off the ground, very possibly due to the fact that people hated working for them so much that they didn’t hang around long enough for the vision to become reality.
Let me put this another way: Steve Jobs was kicked out of the company he founded. He got it back later. But is it possible that it wouldn’t have happened in the first place if he’d been a better people leader? Is it possible that he’d have achieved even more incredible things if his employees had wanted to follow him as much as they believed in his vision?
I think you know the answer to both questions.
For more on this topic, check out my TED talk on “Good vs Great Leaders.”