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Steve Jobs: A Genius, Yes; A Role Model for the Rest of Us, No Way

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The nearly three weeks since Steve Jobs’s death has been like an extended tribute to the first global head of state. The memorial ceremonies worldwide, the special commemorative issues and, today, the release of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, all bear testament to the Apple founder’s legacy. Jobs deserved it. As Isaacson pointed out on CBS’s 60 Minutes last night, Jobs transformed personal computers, telephones, even retail stores, among others—and he would have probably taken on television, if he had lived long enough.

Many heads of state assuredly do not merit such eulogies. Gaddafi is dead. And when the Turkmens turned out to mourn Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov in 2006, they were probably secretly celebrating at least the recovery of the month of January, as Niyazov had renamed the first month of the year after his personal honorific, Türkmenbaşy.

One thread among the encomiums suggests that the world would be a better place if we just had more Steve Jobs in high places. Consider this from Thomas Friedman: “The melancholy over Steve Jobs’s passing is not just about the loss of the inventor of so many products we enjoy. It is also about the loss of someone who personified so many of the leadership traits we know are missing from our national politics.”

It would be unfortunate if the remembrance of Jobs spawns a legion of Steve wannabes. Jobs, in geekspeak, was an “N of 1.” Jobs’s perfectionism and design sense helped establish Apple’s signature “iBrands,” but these traits also transcended, to some extent,  a toxic personality that could have served as a model for the Kevin Spacey character in the movie “Horrible Bosses.” In the film, Dave Harken implies that a promotion awaits one of his employees but ends up awarding it to himself. The Jobs equivalent: stiffing early Apple employees out of stock options when the company first went public. The guy was a…

In the weeks since his death, Jobs has been compared to Einstein and Edison. Maybe so. But the problem with using his interpersonal style as a management role model is that the rest of us, to parrot Apple advertising, will assuredly blow it. In business, the control freak boss—the emblematic Jobs model—is a recipe for unintentionally delivering your best employees as new hires to your closest competitors.

Millions of people have to manage others, and this challenge doesn’t necessarily bring out the best in us. A 2005 article by two psychologists from the University of Surrey, “Disordered Personalities at Work,” found that senior British executives were more likely to demonstrate histrionic personality disorder (grandiosity and lack of empathy among other traits) than criminal psychiatric patients at Broadmoor Special Hospital in Berkshire, England, and they were equally likely to show narcissistic (perfectionism and a dictatorial bent) and compulsive tendencies. Is it that this type of person is attracted to the job or the workplace encourages this type of behavior? Who knows? But entreating subordinates to “insanely great” levels of performance, to quote Jobs’s hyperbolic rhetoric, is more likely to initiate a collective bargaining drive than produce the next iPad.

Even Jobs may have been at his best when he left behind the persona of the old Steve. New Yorker writer James Surowiecki and author of The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations, noted in that magazine how Jobs loosened up in recent years on his insistence on totally closed architectures. The old Steve might have forbidden MP3s on iPods and apps for iPhones and iPads. Giving up a modicum of control eventually propelled the company to heights it had never before experienced—and cemented Jobs’s legacy in the most histrionic terms imaginable.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. biobot 9:47 pm 10/24/2011

    Great article. I used to work for Apple and I have experienced his denigrating others, demanding the impossible. Despite Isaacson’s comments in the 60 Minutes Jobs did not demand the impossible and get it done on time. He was horrible at meeting deadlines.

    Isaacson gives the example of Jobs demanding that a program be completed in the (mythical man)month. And that they did it. Bull.

    Plus his denial of his own daughter Lisa and leaving her mother to raise her child on Welfare does not speak well of Jobs.

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 11:02 pm 10/24/2011

    I’m no student of Apple history, but I’m pretty certain that Apple (I think Jobs personally) essentially copied the graphical user interface developed at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Apple was certainly successful at producing computer products using proprietary software, but I don’t think that at least the early products were truly original in concept.

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  3. 3. biobot 11:37 pm 10/24/2011

    Alan Kay, former head of Xerox PARC, gave an excellent presentation at an ACM meeting back in the mid-80s. Alan Kay is credited with many of the inventions from PARC including the mouse, graphical user interface, ethernet (I believe) and a lot more.

    The point of his presentation and accompanying video was to show that the breakthrough inventions at PARC had a history, much of it from university research.

    When Jobs went to PARC he hired away nearly the entire staff that was working on GUIs. The only one who didn’t go was Alan Kay. He went to Atari believing that he could make more of a difference developing games for learning. Ultimately, Apple hired him as a researcher. But your point is correct. Apple and Jobs were great at evolving other inventions. But where Jobs really stood out was in his negotiating abilities.

    He got Sony to agree to provide 3.5″ drives at cost in return for the possibility of making a fortune of 3.5″ discs and ultimately the same drives to other companies.

    But even here, HP had a touchscreen PC that used 3.5″ floppies. But I hand it to Jobs for making those floppies the industry standard. And I also give him credit for forcing the music industry to change the way that they sell music.

    Thanks to Jobs we did get really sleek products that had the intellectual capital of many others inside.

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  4. 4. Nagnostic 1:00 am 10/25/2011

    biobot, Douglas Engelbart invented the mouse, not Alan Kay.
    Douglas Engelbart never worked for Xerox.

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  5. 5. Postulator 4:06 am 10/25/2011

    Actually, Steve Wozniak was the genius. Jobs was just hard work.

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  6. 6. Shoe9 8:14 am 10/25/2011

    Maturity will do that. Even Steve Jobs matured.

    And now that he is gone, I guess he accomplished what he came for.

    I will sorely miss him.

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  7. 7. Godie.biel 11:15 am 10/25/2011

    Steve Jobs is our generations’ Thomas Edison so perfectly, it’s scary. Within 50/100 years it’ll be Jobs invented the: GUI (as we know it today), mp3 players, touchscreens, smartphones, tablet computers etc..

    Just like Edison’s inventions (or better yet his team’s inventions i.e. N. Tesla) developed upon already existing products/designs/research and deviously designed marketing strategies, efficient products, and mostly patents, became the “genius” that is hailed.

    But maybe this is just part of a larger dilemma, how to correctly praise an inventor (or discoverer in some scientific frontier), if all inventions and breakthoughs are based on some previous research.

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  8. 8. nfiertel 1:18 pm 10/26/2011

    Don’t people SEE? The invention of this or that such as the mouse and the file/folder icon idea and so forth is NOT what Apple/ Jobs did. That is old news. It is the smooth use of many inventions, the consistency of application APIs, the INVENTION OF DESKTOP PUBLISHING ITSELF, one of the most significant Apple inventions of all, the introduction and success at turning the computer from the behemoths of the banking industry into a useful tool for the small business, publishing and eventually leading to its completely universal use and necessity in every day life is APPLE’S and JOB’s contribution along with the plethora of great inventions was to make tech such as they invented or modified or collated or re-designed and re-engineered to be accessible, consistent and dependable. Besides all of this they made the environment in which we all work..beautiful and tied it to our state of appreciation and comfort. This for many of us is no small thing and those that disparage the visual and only see the underlying tech as stolen or borrowed or not original to Apple are simply blind to this aspect but they are in a minority as the world would not speak of Mr. Jobs and Apple as they do if this tiny geek minority held any traction with what the rest of us millions do see as Apple. Mr. Jobs might very well have been a difficult, abrasive, unflinchingly obsessed and even self centred man. I have no idea other than from what I have read and seen but he was far, far more inventive than the reactionary Edison and the crypto fascist Ford though sadly it seems Jobs and Ford did not much like unions. I respect his brilliance in the design field and his many patented inventions but do not have to like, necessarily, who he was as a man. One must thus separate the one from the other in the historical context to which he now belongs. Only his immediate family and friends can really know who Steve Jobs was. The rest of us can revel in his ideas..yes..HIS ideas…and the fact that some code bricklayer did not understand the edifice that Jobs the architect had envisioned is beside the point. His role was to invent large ideas before society even knew that they wanted them. That is what makes him the epitome of a new technological and communications Renaissance and how he put it all together makes him yes, a genius of ideas. The rest of it matters not a jot.

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  9. 9. Holeycow 8:54 pm 10/26/2011

    Suggesting that Steve Jobs invented desktop publishing is a bit of a stretch. Having worked in the advertising industry since 1978, I’ve watched the growth of computers as a design tool at first hand. Computers were already making their mark felt before the Apple II was released. In the late 70′s computers with telex machines for a user interface were being used to control animation cameras for slit scan special effects, VAX mainframes were producing wireframe animation, Quantel computers were twisting & distorting video images & a quaint little package called wordstar was typesetting (probably the true beginning of desktop publishing).
    The analogy with Edison is, I believe, quite apt. Jobs took other peoples ideas & marketed them really well.
    Where he had a real talent was seeing the potential that other people missed. With hindsight, the mouse & GUI seem like no brainers, but it took Jobs to recognise that those were the things that would make computers more accessible & thus expand the market.
    The introduction of postscript fonts on the Mac was important in the development of dtp, but it certainly wasn’t the beginning, and there are many others who deserve credit for where dtp is today (Adobe for one….& does anyone remember the dominance of Quark?).
    Jobs genius was as an entreprenuer with great marketing skills & vision…….not as an inventor.

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  10. 10. Cody Horton 10:44 am 10/27/2011

    It seems that human’s tend to have quirky ideas about certain behaviors accompanying other behaviors in order to be successful. This is the case with Steve Jobs. Yes, he had an incredible talent but his drive, anger and cognitive dissonance are what sent him to an earlier grave. When people pass on unless they were a horrific leaders, the masses will internalize the bad behaviors of an individual and put them up on a pedestal. I think we need to honor the best in an individual but we need to keep it in perspective. We are human and if we understand that people can be perfectly human than we can live in balance. I have to wonder about the people who write commentaries and how they got where they were. It is always about sensationalism and this paints an incorrect reality. Thank all of you who have offered your perspective because you are living in reality. The “Horrible Boss” syndrome doesn’t work, never did and never will!

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  11. 11. BuckSkinMan 12:42 am 10/28/2011

    Just PLEEEZE stop calling Steve Jobs an “inventor” – he never invented ANYTHING!! He just SOLD things, including arcane contracts to distribute music over the internet (invented by someone else) using software (invented by someone else). He SOLD the idea that a gum drop shaped, multi-colored acrylic case for a personal computer (invented by someone else) was ‘COOL.’ He also was exceptional at TELLING people who worked for him that what he thought was COOL should be applied to existing products and technologies. So Steve Jobs was a SELLER and a TELLER but nothing more.

    Can anyone guess who it was who outdid Steve Jobs on every single point brought into this article?? It was Benjamin Franklin: a true inventor who ALWAYS based his “selling” on mutual interest and the greatest good for the greatest number. Franklin, rather than waste his time chasing money and selling toys to adults with the minds of children, used his selling ability to bring together both the Continental Congress and the delegates to the constitutional convention. He went on to sell the French on WINNING the Revolutionary War for us. He refused Congress’s offer to patent his inventions: saying that they would do more good in the hands of the many OTHER industrious people of that time. (If you think this is trivial, you haven’t considered what would have happened if Franklin and his descendants had held control of just bifocal lenses.)
    The only reason Steve Jobs’ name is even mentioned is because he was expert at telling (many) people what they want to hear. “Buy this and be cool.” was the entire content of his litanies. Otherwise, his main achievement was in being widely recognized as a bully to those he was in a position to abuse. “Terrible Boss” fits him perfectly.

    Jobs didn’t invent anything, much less anything worth as much as bifocals (Franklin’s invention) or the incandescent light bulb (Edison’s greatest invention).

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  12. 12. kfinel 1:22 am 10/28/2011

    People can not differentiate between the man and the Brand. Jobs was a man. A CEO and King of High End Consumer Gadgets. What the consumers and investors of the world are mourning is the the loss of the Brand “Steve Jobs.”

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  13. 13. ankank 1:28 am 10/28/2011

    There’s a slightly different profile of Jobs here:
    entitled, Who is this?

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  14. 14. mitchelltorok 3:27 pm 10/30/2011

    Let us not forget whose side Jobs was on. He may have been a lovely man in many ways (his Stanford address had me in tears) but he was definitely with the 1%. Remember he gave a platform to the unspeakable Murdoch Inc:

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  15. 15. kfinel 1:30 pm 10/31/2011

    It is difficult to separate Steve Jobs the man from Steve Jobs the Brand. Steve Jobs the man was a CEO, and King of High End Gadgets. Consumers and Investors alike are mourning Steve Jobs the Brand, not the man.

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