Steve Jobs: A genius but a bad, mean manager

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

WASHINGTON—Apple Inc. cofounder Steve Jobs revolutionized multiple industries with his cutting-edge products but he was not the world’s best manager, according to biographer Walter Isaacson.

Jobs changed the course of personal computing during two stints at Apple and then brought a revolution to the mobile market, but the inspiring genius is known for his hard edges that have often times alienated colleagues and early investors with his my-way-or-the-highway dictums in his quest for perfection.

“He’s not warm and fuzzy … He was not the world’s greatest manager. In fact, he could have been one of the world’s worst managers,” Isaacson said on Sunday in an interview with “60 Minutes” on CBS.

“He was very petulant. He was very brittle. He could be very, very mean to people at times,” Isaacson said of Jobs, who died on October 5 at the age of 56.

“Whether it was to a waitress in a restaurant or to a guy who had stayed up all night coding, he could just really just go at them and say, ‘You’re doing this all wrong. It’s horrible.’ And you’d say, ‘Why did you do that? Why weren’t you nicer?’ And he’d say, ‘I really want to be with people who demand perfection. And this is who I am,”’ the biographer said.

“You know, he was a pretty abrasive, and in some ways, you know, a cantankerous character,” Isaacson said.

Job’s quest for perfection came in part from his adopted father, Paul Jobs, who taught him “how to make great things,” the biographer said of the man who devised the Macintosh computer, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad during his brilliant career.

“Once they were building a fence. And he said to his father, ‘You got to make the back of the fence that nobody will see just as good looking as the front of the fence,’” Isaacson said. “That will show that you’re dedicated to making something perfect.’”

Brutally honest

Jobs loved to argue but not everyone around him shared that passion, which drove some of his top people away. While his style had yielded breakthrough products, it didn’t make for “great management style,” Isaacson said.

In one of the more than 40 interviews that Jobs had given the biographer, the technology icon said he felt totally comfortable being brutally honest.

“That’s the ante for being in the room. So we’re brutally honest with each other and all of them can tell me they think I’m full of s**t, and I can tell anyone I think they’re full of s**t,” Issacson quoted Jobs as saying. “And we’ve had some rip-roaring arguments where we’re yelling at each other.”

Isaacson’s biography, “Steve Jobs,” which hits bookstores on Monday, reveals that Jobs refused potentially life-saving cancer surgery for nine months, suffered bullying in school, tried various quirky diets as a teenager and exhibited early strange behavior such as staring at others without blinking.

The book is expected to paint an unprecedented, no-holds-barred portrait of a man who famously guarded his privacy fiercely but whose death ignited a global outpouring of grief and tribute.

Attitude toward money

Isaacson said Jobs, despite being worth billions of dollars, lived in a modest house in Palo Alto and was determined not to let money change him.

In a taped interview for the book, Jobs told Isaacson a lot of people had changed at Apple after becoming wealthy.

“A few people went out and bought Rolls-Royces and they bought homes, and their wives got plastic surgery,” Jobs said in the interview.

“I saw these people who were really nice, simple people turn into these bizarro people,” he added. “And I made a promise to myself: ‘I’m not going to let this money ruin my life.’”

‘Magical thinking’

In the CBS interview, Isaacson said that the reality distortion theory that had always been associated with Jobs stemmed from the Apple cofounder’s belief that he was special and that the rules didn’t apply to him.

“He could drive himself by magical thinking,” Isaacson said. “By believing something that the rest of us couldn’t possibly believe, and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.”

After Jobs became ill with pancreatic cancer in 2003, he “no longer wanted to go out, no longer wanted to travel the world,” Isaacson said.

“He would focus on the products,” the biographer said. “He knew the couple of things he wanted to do which was the iPhone and then the iPad.”

Jobs, who has revolutionized the world of personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet, digital publishing and retail stores, would have liked to conquer television as well, according to Isaacson.

“He had a few other visions. He would love to make an easy-to-use television set,” Isaacson said, speaking of Job’s last two-and-a-half years of life.

“But he started focusing on his family again as well. And it was a painful brutal struggle. And he would talk, often to me about the pain.”

God and afterlife

In his final meeting with Isaacson in mid-August, Jobs still held out hope that there might be one new drug that could save him. He also wanted to believe in God and an afterlife.

“Ever since I’ve had cancer, I’ve been thinking about (God) more. And I find myself believing a bit more. Maybe it’s because I want to believe in an afterlife. That when you die, it doesn’t just all disappear,” Isaacson quoted Jobs as saying.

“Then he paused for a second and he said, ‘Yeah, but sometimes I think it’s just like an on-off switch. Click and you’re gone,’” Isaacson said.

“He paused again, and he said: And that’s why I don’t like putting on-off switches on Apple devices.” Reports from Reuters and AFP

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  • Rex

    Apple sucks your credit cards!

  • Monsi Serrano

    This is a mean write up against Steve Jobs. The man is no longer there to protect or defend himself. As Chilon of Sparta said,  “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.” (Say nothing (evil) but good about the dead.)

  • Jomjom

    As a manager he was good. Proof? Look at where Apple is now! Nobody can argue with success. When he was kicked out by Apple, the company suffered. When he got back, it succeeded. Is that a bad, mean manager?C’mon. Don’t mistake Public relations (PR) with Good management. They are different bananas. So Isaacson should have said Jobs was a good manager but is bad at PR.  

    • Anonymous

      “Bad” has different connotations. “Bad” can mean something sub par or below standards. Or something defective or not working properly. “Bad” can also mean disagreeable, unpleasant or disturbing. Or mean and nasty. The author of the book on Steve Jobs obviously meant the latter definition of “bad”. And that is clearly borne out by Jobs’ bad behavior, perhaps on a daily basis.

      And, lest we be confused, management isn’t simply about competence. A great manager must also have compassion and integrity. Management isn’t just about the machines or the products. The most important aspect is the people. Jobs may have been a good manager, but certainly not a great one.

  • Anonymous

    Everybody can be high tech but nobody is perfect…

  • Anonymous

    All our conveniences will belong to Apple if Jobs lives in our lifetime….. like tapping a phone number to dial, swipe to unlock, rectangular shape tablet and phones, rectangular screen, vibrant LCD screen (which are made by Samsung, SONY and Sharp).

    Most of the Apple patent infringement suits were already present to the bankrupt Palm, Sharp Zaurus and other Windows-mobile 5.0 but the manufacturers of those products did not apply for patent. They were several years before iPhone appeared on the market. Jobs only enhanced them based on the contemporary technology available.

    Apple these days is beginning to make Microsoft look like cab scout (small boy scout). They are pure evil. I’ll never ever buy one of their products. The iPhone and iPod shuffle will be the last products that our family will have. They just want to sue and sue to kick away the fair competition.

    Jobs should have let all the products be available in the market and let the consumer decides what to buy.

  • Anonymous

    The point is integrity. And that is what makes Steve Jobs such a phony. He made himself out as a rebel, an outsider. And marketed his products to appeal to non-conformists and anti-establishment folks, much like those “Occupy Wall Street” types. These were the base that supported him even during the dark years. Yet, Jobs evolved into a cunning, controlling, domineering and vindictive tyrant who would be the antithesis of everything he advocated. He advertised Apple and himself as the champions against “Big Brother”, the dictator who engages in mass surveillance and control in George Orwell’s novel “1984”. And yet, Jobs himself turned Apple into an oppressive “Big Brother”, controlling and filtering content, bullying and threatening media, spying and using Gestapo tactics on employees and utilizing child labor in factories that don’t comply with health and safety standards. 

    Jobs even vowed to wage “thermonuclear” war on Google, simply because its Android operating system, which by the way is “open source” or free, took away market share from Apple. What sort of madman threatens war, much less nuclear war on others? This reduces Jobs to a caricature of North Korea’s Kim Jong Il.Too much is made about Jobs the efficient perfectionist, turning a blind eye to the cruel, inhuman and immoral manner in which efficiency was carried out. Those two cannot be detached. Satan himself could be a mean, yet efficient, taskmaster. Does that make it right? Does the end justify the means?

    • Anonymous

      Well said. As a Mac user for many years I just can’t reconcile those heady anti-establishment early years with the sue-anything-that-moves mega corporation Apple has morphed into today. Hypocrisy pure and simple.

      The fanboys want to turn him into some kind of saint which clearly he was not. He made nice, well-made expensive consumer items that sold well. Then he died. That’s it.

  • Anonymous

    Isaacson is a writer, not a management expert. Management is not about being fuzzy and warm, being popular. It is about marshaling all the 4 M’s within the given time to achieve a goal, If Jobs was a bad manager, Apple cannot achieve all those technological breakthroughs. Perhaps Isaacson should have used other words than “bad” or “mean”.

  • Anonymous

    i have a mean manager….i like it…its always a clash of ideas with one goal.

  • Toxic Waste

    Mr. Jobs can’t defend himself that he is “labeled” as “bad manager” by unauthorized biographer… if he was a bad manager, Apple will not survived….

    • Anonymous

      Type your comment here.
      Isaacson was authorized to wrote his biography.  The author is a famous biographer and held his own reputation and credibility.  There probably was an agreement between them that the author be allowed some leeway in characterization of Steve Jobs and that the book should not just be about the great things that he was but also include the blemishes and imperfection of Steve Jobs that make him just one of us human beings.  The only difference is that when he had the chance, he did so much better than any of us could do even in our earnest.

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