Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Steve Jobs: A great and toxic leader

We hear a lot about toxic leaders these days, and especially how bad they are for military units, so I was surprised when I picked up Water Isasacson’s terrific biography of Steve Jobs of Apple/Pixar fame to see that Jobs was a classic toxic leader — bullying, self-indulgent, lacking empathy, often ungrateful, unwilling to give ...

Flickr
Flickr
Flickr

We hear a lot about toxic leaders these days, and especially how bad they are for military units, so I was surprised when I picked up Water Isasacson's terrific biography of Steve Jobs of Apple/Pixar fame to see that Jobs was a classic toxic leader -- bullying, self-indulgent, lacking empathy, often ungrateful, unwilling to give credit where it was due, and a world-class control freak. (I hadn't planned to read the book, but my wife, who cares about computers maybe even less than I do but cares a lot about history, recommended it highly as a story of our times.)

Job's awful behavior was not just a matter of corporate antics. He was downright weird, not believing in showering much and wafting such bad body odor early that in his career he was told to work nights. An abandoned child himself, he neglected for many years a child he fathered and wasn't particularly good with his subsequent offspring. One former girlfriend called him an enlightened person, but unusually, also a cruel one.   

Here's the problem: There is no question that Steve Jobs was a self-centered jerk. Yet he also appears to have been a great corporate leader and innovator who pulled off a series of successes -- the Apple II and MacIntosh computers, the Pixar movie animation studio, the iPod, the iPad, and the iPhone. These have had an impact on the way we live. In the process, Jobs built one of the world's most valuable companies. 

We hear a lot about toxic leaders these days, and especially how bad they are for military units, so I was surprised when I picked up Water Isasacson’s terrific biography of Steve Jobs of Apple/Pixar fame to see that Jobs was a classic toxic leader — bullying, self-indulgent, lacking empathy, often ungrateful, unwilling to give credit where it was due, and a world-class control freak. (I hadn’t planned to read the book, but my wife, who cares about computers maybe even less than I do but cares a lot about history, recommended it highly as a story of our times.)

Job’s awful behavior was not just a matter of corporate antics. He was downright weird, not believing in showering much and wafting such bad body odor early that in his career he was told to work nights. An abandoned child himself, he neglected for many years a child he fathered and wasn’t particularly good with his subsequent offspring. One former girlfriend called him an enlightened person, but unusually, also a cruel one.   

Here’s the problem: There is no question that Steve Jobs was a self-centered jerk. Yet he also appears to have been a great corporate leader and innovator who pulled off a series of successes — the Apple II and MacIntosh computers, the Pixar movie animation studio, the iPod, the iPad, and the iPhone. These have had an impact on the way we live. In the process, Jobs built one of the world’s most valuable companies. 

So what are we to think? Issacson doesn’t really tell us. I wouldn’t want to have worked for the guy. Yet it made me stop to think: In retrospect, the two roughest bosses I had in my decades in journalism also were the best for my career, holding me to high standards, rewarding my efforts, and promoting me quickly.   

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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