Sunday, July 6, 2014

Book Review: Steve Jobs

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So let me say that at the start that I am not an Apple person.  I am not an anti-Apple person, either.  It's just that when I got my first computer in 1995 it was a PC.  I still don't have a need for a smartphone... and my fourth desktop PC works just fine. 

But Jobs is an icon of American business, and Apple is off-the-charts successful.  The book was much in the news the year it came out, which co-occurred with Jobs' death.  It was to be an easy, breezy winter curl-up read. 

Oh, but it wasn't. 

The author has provided us with a book which is meticulously researched, painstakingly organized, and well-crafted.  The writing is clear and clean and the narrative moves along.  It's just that the subject matter was so disturbing to me that I couldn't enjoy it or recommend it to others. Jobs' personal story is really only useful as a cautionary tale.  It shows us that in our society someone can be highly regarded and hugely successful even when they treat others like dirt.

From beginning to end Steve Jobs was mean.  He belittled, abused, snarled, badgered and humiliated people.  He seems to be have been humble or charming only when it served some agenda he was working.  In scene after scene the author quotes Jobs' associates talk about the horrid behavior they and others tolerated in order to have access to the golden, inventive mind.  A thick skin was a requirement and withstanding regular verbal assault was the price of admission to the inner circle.

Isaacson concludes, "The nasty edge to his personality was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him.  But it did, at times, serve a purpose.  Polite and velvety leaders, who take care to avoid bruising others, are generally not as effective at forcing change."

I say "horse feathers!"  There is miles of distance between "velvety" and where Jobs was.  He wasn't merely insistent on his way, or sternly holding people accountable for achieving at a high level.  He was a tyrant of the highest order.  Did Apple grow to be ginormous with legions of raving fans around the world? Yep.  Did a few dozen people get fabulously wealthy?  Yep.  Was putting up with Jobs' behavior the thing to do?  No way.  There is no standard of excellence so high to justify abuse.  The world will never know what might have been created by Jobs and his colleagues if he had been kind, collaborative, affirming, partnering, nice.  He robbed us of that - and so did the people who made his excuses for him.

As I read, knowing Jobs had died only weeks before the book's publication, I kept waiting for the redemption moment... an indication Jobs acknowledged to Isaacson that he was sorry for the hurt he caused people.  But it doesn't happen.  Up to the last Jobs was a self-absorbed and hateful bully, the kind of person we tell our children to avoid.

There are some business lessons in here and I did my best to pull them into a summary which is available for download by clicking here.  Read Steve Jobs if you like, but I am going back to Richard Branson.(I'll embed summaries in an upcoming blogpost.)

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