Steve Jobs as a Model Leader? As a Manufacturing Leader?


As I wrote about after his death, I am appreciative of the products and services that Steve Jobs brought to the world.  That said, some of his behavior, as reported in the biography written by Walter Isaacson (the simply titled “Steve Jobs“) is less than admirable.  Some felt the need to dance on his grave, but maybe enough time has passed where we can take a balanced view of his leadership approach, particularly in the manufacturing realm. Jobs isn't really associated with the production of computers and devices –  he's known as a design guy and a software guy.

Steve Jobs: A**hole

From this excerpt in The Atlantic (“Be a Jerk: The Worst Business Lesson From the Steve Jobs Biography“):

Walter Isaacson's best-selling biography of Jobs offers a revealing look at what the author has called “good Steve” and “bad Steve.” Good Steve was brilliant, charismatic, a champion for excellence, an alchemist who turned a moribund computer company into gold. Bad Steve was petulant, rude, spiteful, and controlling, a man who thought nothing of publicly humiliating employees, hogging the credit for work he hadn't done, throwing tantrums when he didn't get his way, or parking his Mercedes in handicapped spots. For several years, he even denied the paternity of his daughter so that the child and her mother had to live on welfare.

Other historic leaders like Henry Ford have their bad sides as well, as Ford was a rather outspoken anti-Semite, particularly in his later years. Once (and just once), I had a hospital client say that I shouldn't even mention Henry Ford's name for that very reason.

I think, in both cases, we can celebrate some of the lessons and ideas that are transferrable (as Toyota learned a lot from Henry Ford's business methods), while cringing and criticizing their personal behavior.

The Atlantic piece touches on Stanford professor Robert Sutton and his book (and philosophy) called “The No A**hole Rule” (listen to my Podcast with Sutton here). I'm a strong proponent of a “zero tolerance” policy for a**holes, regardless of their power and position in an organization. Their presence is toxic – whether it's a frontline manager, a CEO, or a surgeon. Sutton argues that a**holes just aren't worth the trouble. But, Apple wasn't about to get rid of Steve Jobs (well, at least not get rid of them a second time).

Sadly, as The Atlantic discusses, many people will read the Steve Jobs biography and think that you somehow HAVE to be an a**hole to be successful.

Five years ago, when Stanford professor of management science and engineering Robert Sutton was researching his book,  The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't, he ran across a disconcerting number of Silicon Valley leaders who believed that Steve Jobs was living proof that being an asshole boss was integral to building a great company.

That sort of thinking is really hard for me to even comprehend. Back in my General Motors, one of our plant's senior leaders was an a**hole and a bully. Before leaving GM for MIT (knowing I wasn't coming back), I asked him why he acted that way (after seeing him curse somebody out over the phone while I was in his office). Long story short, he said he HAD to act that way in the GM culture, hence confirming my decision to leave (although, thankfully, not everybody there was an a**hole and a bully).

Sutton continued:

“Even people who worked with Jobs told me that they'd seen him make people cry many times, but that 80 percent of the time he was right, ” says Sutton. “It is troubling that there's this notion in our culture that if you're a winner, it's okay to be an asshole.”

Agreed. How many organizations look the other way because some a**hole is making a lot of sales or is a world-famous clinician? Would we be better off, overall in the long-term, with the a**holes?

The Atlantic piece concludes:

The fact is, Steve Jobs didn't succeed because he was an asshole. He succeeded because he was Steve Jobs. He had an uncanny sixth sense about what consumers wanted, an unmatched ability to adapt existing technology and turn it into something new, and a commitment to quality that turned ordinary Apple customers into fans for life. Being an asshole was part of the Steve package, but it wasn't essential to his success. But that's not a message most of the assholes in the corner offices want to hear.

Jobs Blames Lack of U.S. Worker Skills for Apple's Offshoring

There are many interesting tidbits in this article (“Internal Affairs: Steve Jobs' menu choices vetoed by White House“) including how Jobs turned down an invitation to visit the White House.

But there's one item related to manufacturing that caught my eye:

Nonetheless, Jobs was willing to create an iCampaign for Obama's re-election after the president followed up on another idea the Apple co-founder offered up: launch a national initiative to provide basic engineering courses at community colleges or tech and trade schools, whose graduates could supervise manufacturing plants in the United States. The lack of such workers, Jobs said, was a key reason Apple doesn't set up assembly lines in America.

Really? Lack of workers? What about all of the experienced workers and supervisors who have lost their manufacturing jobs in the last decade? I'm sorry, I don't buy Jobs' story for one minute.

Apple has their manufacturing in China for a number of reasons. One is the low hourly wages of the workers. The second point is that the entire electronics industry has moved to China. I guess Apple could import raw components (as Dell Computer did when I worked there in 1999-2000), doing the assembly in the U.S. (or in other countries close to their customers). But, the logistics are probably easier to do assembly in China, importing the completed iPhones and other iProducts. Jobs and Apple can rationalize their use of China all they want, but to blame a lack of American skills seems disingenuous.

Top Down Decisions to Repaint Robots

This Malcolm Gladwell piece in the New Yorker (“The Tweaker – The real genius of Steve Jobs“) has another interesting tidbit from a time when NeXT (the company he founded after being driven from Apple) did manufacture products in the U.S.

“Machines and robots were painted and repainted as he compulsively revised his color scheme,” Isaacson writes, of the factory Jobs built, after founding NeXT, in the late nineteen-eighties.

Jobs certainly had a vision, but it's an interesting glimpse into his mind that the color of the machines and robots was such an important issue to him. That seems trivial compared to more important business issues, don't you think?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Excellent piece Mark. When I finished Isaacson’s book, I found myself questioning my own level of tolerance (for assholes). We all have issues. Like yourself ( leaving GM), we have a choice with and for who we do our work. Steve Jobs earned the right to make the rules at Apple. Unfortunately, not many could understand what those rules were. Do I tolerate that? Depends on what I’m there to learn.

  2. I found that this blog on Steve Jobs was very well written. The fact that a person is excellent at what they do and in a position of power does not excuse terrible behavior. In my mind you must lead by example. If you are a true leader you are never off the clock. A great leader acts the same day in and day out at work or at home. However, I do not know a great deal about Steve Jobs personal life, but I do know that he made Apple what it is today.

  3. Isn’t this the halo effect in action? Jobs achieved success therefore all of his other traits were regarded as either part of that success or at least something vaguely positive.

    I guarantee you that if Jobs, or anyone else using the bosshole approach, were not delivering results their behaviour would quickly see them out the door.

    • Agreed. I think certain ethical or behavioral standards should be non-negotiable.

      In the Lean mindset, we don’t just want results, we want to make sure we have the right process that leads to those right results. Bad behavior shouldn’t be tolerated just because that person is successful, whether it’s a sexually-harassing salesperson or a “bosshole” CEO.

  4. Good insights into the myth of Steve Jobs.

    Jobs’ defense of moving overseas for his manufacturing are disingenuous boilerplate that seems to circulate in that world of high tech electronics.

    I remember going over to Palo Alto to listen to my then hero, T. J. Rodgers, rail at the early offshoring of chip fab. Go U.S.A!

    Now, we can listen to Rodgers on YouTube explaining how one can not run a chip fab in Fremont, anymore.

    I sense expediency in both Jobs and Rodgers.

  5. You asked me to add some detail for my tweet: I just read and why they went overseas for production: tariffs on components, not on endproducts.

    Here’s a fragment of that update:

    I’d like to draw attention to one cost in particular that really created problems for us in Britain. Simply put, if we build the Raspberry Pi in Britain, we have to pay a lot more tax. If a British company imports components, it has to pay tax on those (and most components are not made in the UK). If, however, a completed device is made abroad and imported into the UK – with all of those components soldered onto it – it does not attract any import duty at all.

  6. This is a gripping journey into the life of an amazing individual. Despite its girth of nearly 600 pages, the book zips along at a torrid pace.

    The interviews with Jobs are fascinating and revealing. We get a real sense for what it must have been like to be Steve, or to work with him. That earns the book five stars despite its flaws, in that it’s definitely a must-read if you have any interest at all in the subject.

    But there are places in the book where I have to say, “Huh?”

    The book is written essentially as a series of stories about Steve. The book continuously held my interest, but some of the dramas of his life seem muted. For instance, he came close to going bust when both Next and Pixar were flailing. There was only the slightest hint that anything dramatic happened in those years. In one paragraph, Pixar is shown as nearly running him out of money. A few brief paragraphs later, Toy Story gets released and Jobs’ finances are saved for good.

    Of course what’s truly remarkable about Jobs is that he lived a life so full of incident that perhaps no biography has the space to cover the broad sweep of his life. He accomplished as much as 10 ordinarily famous men. Maybe the upshot is that you just can’t fit a man like this in a book, even if that book’s nearly 600 pages.


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