Belly button of the world

Susan
Susan Flanagan
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Steve Jobs was the centre of his universe, but it wasn’t always a nice place to be

illustration by The Telegram

Steve Jobs thought he was the belly button of the world. He thought rules for regular people didn’t apply to him. He parked his Mercedes SL55 in handicapped spaces and drove with no licence plate. He didn’t give his children the attention they craved. He berated his employees using words so cutting that some never recovered from their sting. No one — not friends or relatives — was spared his insults.

Hard-working engineers who probably hadn’t been home for a family dinner in months were told their brilliant work was garbage. He knowingly stole ideas from other companies’ products. Yet if another company dared borrow from his products, he would go to war.

Lifetime friends were never again spoken to after a disagreement. After reading the biography, “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson, I’m happy my children will never have a chance to work for him or be subjected to his management style.

Imagine if your child came home and told you his boss tore strips off him in front of his peers when he presented a new idea and then a week later came back to the same group and presented the identical idea as if he had come up with it himself. You’d want to strangle him, right?

I do not dispute that Jobs was a visionary — he envisioned and created devices that people thought impossible and then convinced them they couldn’t live without them. He assembled A teams of employees who created a computer that an illiterate six-year-old could use without instruction. His product launches were as popular as rock concerts. People slept on sidewalks to make sure they’d make it for a store opening.

So what is it that made people want to follow him? What is it about this man who could view your life’s work or passion and scathingly pronounce: “This is shit”?

I read all 571 pages and got a wicked pain in my right shoulder just to find out.

According to the biography, even after being diagnosed with cancer, Jobs did not mellow.

“On his first day back, he startled his top team by throwing a series of tantrums. He ripped apart people he had not seen for six months, tore up some marketing plans and chewed out a couple of people whose work he found shoddy,” writes Isaacson.

A former girlfriend described Jobs as suffering from narcissistic personality disorder.

“I realized that expecting him to be nicer or less self-centred was like expecting a blind man to see,” she said.

And indeed, by page 200 of Jobs’ biography, I was getting demoralized. He reminded me of a director at the school of journalism where I met my husband.

That director would pronounce the same three words no matter what writing had been handed in to him. “This is shit,” he would spit in his distinct accent, throwing the typed pages back at some unsuspecting student.

This was a shock to me, since I had always been fed positive reinforcement as an incentive to do better. I had never been exposed to such demeaning words. I couldn’t imagine saying the same words to my worst enemy, let alone someone I was trying to encourage to do a better job. Maybe some students found the director’s words inspirational and wrote better copy as a result, but not me. And 20 years later, I still cannot appreciate that style of leadership.

In the biography, Bill Atkinson, an early Apple employee, explains how they dealt with Jobs’ demeaning words.

“We learned to interpret ‘This is shit’ to actually be a question that means ‘Tell me why this is the best way to do it?’” he said, adding that an engineer usually found a better way to do the work Jobs had torn apart. “He did it better because Steve had challenged him,” said Atkinson.

And, indeed, people did succeed in doing things they never dreamed possible under Jobs’ watch. He advanced technology, no doubt.

But how could people work for a man so mean?

Like Joey Smallwood, Steve Jobs had the gift of gab. He was extremely convincing when he told people they’d be part of a team that would revolutionize the world and they’d regret it if they refused.

Jobs had “the power of the tongue and the web of words that catches people up,” said Alvy Ray Smith, a co-founder of Pixar who was raised Southern Baptist. “We were aware of this so we developed signals — nose scratching or ear tugs — for when someone had been caught up in Steve’s distortion field and he needed to be tugged back to reality.”

This “reality distortion field” could work in many ways. Jobs could convince a team to complete a task in two weeks that they assured him would take six months. He could tell engineers to design a circuit board so wafer thin that it could fit into a notebook. He could spin facts to his advantage; conjure things out of thin air and speak as if they were gospel.

Jobs taught himself to stare unblinkingly and used this ability to force people to come around to his way of thinking. There were few who could hold up under that intense gaze. People who worked elsewhere and whose work Jobs admired were lured by him to work at Apple only to be condemned and fired months later for the very qualities for which they were recruited. Those whose novel ideas were dismissed as garbage would often learn that Jobs had later announced their idea at a board meeting and passed it off as his own.

That does not sound like a very endearing visionary. I am happy to have never witnessed one of his legendary mood swings or character assassinations. I am blessed that my children’s teachers do not share Jobs’ management style. On the contrary; they offer positive reinforcement.

I hope in their working lives my children do not encounter a Steve Jobs type. And if they do, I hope they have a skin thick enough to stand their ground.

To conclude the book, Isaacson wonders if Jobs “simply lacked the filter that restrains people from venting their wounding thoughts or willfully bypassed it. … When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness. Quite the contrary: he could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will,” says Isaacson.

To Jobs’ credit, he did not try to control what Isaacson put in the book. He also had ideas that I agreed with or found intriguing, like the fact that process should be as important as the finished product. And what you can’t see should be just as esthetically pleasing as what you can see, like the back of a cabinet. It should be a masterpiece of craftsmanship. Even though it will not be seen, it should never be a bald piece of plywood.

In the same way, the innards of a Mac computer are supposedly as esthetically pleasing as what you see on the outside — not that we’ll be able to open an iPad to check it out.

So was it all worth it? By getting rid of the B and C workers, Jobs was able to create one of the most successful business empires of our era. He envisioned that we would come to need things we didn’t even know existed. For those who think this is a one-sided impression of Jobs’ legacy, read Isaacson’s book.

Was his treatment of those who worked for him justified by a world filled with iPads, iPods, iTunes and iPhones?

That’s a question I’ll leave with you.

 

Facebook feedback

Michelle writes: “Wanted to let you know how much I love your article on Facebook. You are 100 per cent accurate on how it affects personal relationships. Hope a lot of people took heed.”

 

Author note

At a 12th Night party I chatted with a couple who has a daughter who is deaf. They explained how texting is the best thing that ever happened to open up her world of communications.

 

Lively Levee feedback

John writes: “Good to see that the old Newfoundland traditions are being given the coverage they deserve. Now if only there would be some coverage of the forgotten NL tradition (which perhaps has given way to the just and appropriate claims of environmentalists that we shouldn’t be levelling boreal forests) of putting up ‘bough arches’ for special events, distinguished visitors, and for Christmas, etc. There’s a suggestion for a future column for you.”

 

Susan Flanagan is a journalist who shares a birthday with Steve Jobs, as well as his

dislike for PowerPoint presentations. She is pretty certain her first computer, a

Mac Notebook, is still in operation in the hands of two Belarusians named Tanya and Anton. Email her at susan@48degrees.ca.

Organizations: Apple, Pixar, PowerPoint

Geographic location: Southern Baptist, Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • Jeremiah
    January 17, 2012 - 08:56

    I haven't read the biography of Jobs and now I probably won't bother. Anyone who would park in a disabled spot (other than a truly disabled person) is a real p...k.Too bad, another one bites the dust. I am writing this on an iPad.