I spent the last few days listening to Isaacson’s book about the life of Steve Jobs. And I felt an intense array of emotions ranging from inspiration to disgust.
To put this in context: Steve Jobs’s 2005 Stanford commencement speech struck a deep chord with me, like it did with so many individuals. The design of the iPod, Mac, iPhone impressed me, as did the Zen-inspired minimalist essence of Apple products. Jobs, in my mind, was the unique blend of artistic and technical passions concocting in a magical way, rippling with new possibilities. Jobs recently died. So I was all the more curious to learn more about him, how he led teams, how he dealt with people, and who he internally was, as a human.
The book sheds light on all these aspects. If you’re expecting Jobs to come out a hero in all spheres, you’d probably be more than disappointed. Instead, Jobs comes across just as human and prone to mistakes as any of us, perhaps more. He declined paternity to his daughter, did not share stocks with close friend and employee number 12 — Daniel Kottke, underpaid and lied to Steve Wozniak about a bonus he got at Atari for a device that Wozniak created, planned a boardroom coup to oust John Sculley, frequently charmed people with lies for selfish motives. He was not an engineer, but tightly controlled the workings of several.
At the same time, he comes across as someone with an excellent sense of design, a pursuit toward perfection, ability to inspire, and the charisma to extend the spectrum of perceived possibility. He was the CEO of 3 big companies, co-founder of 2 of them, battled cancer, came back from a public ouster to generate unpredictable success.
The question I had on my mind was: how does Jobs fare as a role-model? Is he someone one would like to emulate? Of course, there are parts of him that seem good, and others not-so-good. However, as anyone interested in leadership would ask: were the same quirks and issues that made Jobs a ‘difficult’ person, the ones responsible for all the innovation he was able to inspire or participate in? Isaacson has, on a few interviews, answered this in the affirmative (or so is my perception).
I disagree. I think Steve could have inspired creativity without denying paternity to his daughter. He could have shared his success more fairly with friends, while making great products. Not to say that he made any more or worse mistakes than several of us make in life, but that as far as role models and inspiration go, one has to be careful to identify what would resonate. Steve’s wonderful life can leave one with the impression that innovation is not possible without being a jerk… but it is important to remember that there are several examples around us where innovation and impact has been made without necessarily resorting to be a jerk. Whether it is Gandhi or Luther who inspires you, or Andy Grove or Larry Page, or Neil Armstrong, or Marie Curie, it is important to put things in context. Especially when you’re in the reality-distortion-field that engulfed the life of Steven Paul Jobs.