I have a lot of time for The Atlantic’s online property and it was no surprise to see the recent announcement that the company now generates more revenue from online content than print. The genius of the strategy was to focus on quality thinkers who, through their own contradictory personalities, were less inclined to spin off into dogma. Andrew Sullivan, now departed to The Daily Beast but previously a central component to The Atlantic’s success, is a staunchly Catholic, staunchly conservative, HIV-positive gay man and Megan McCardle is a libertarian feminist who probably cringes at the “world’s tallest female blogger” title. Newer member Daniel Indiviglio remains essential reading.
After an endorsement like that you are probably expecting an attempted smackdown at this point but that is not exactly the case. I actually liked Tom McNichols’ Be a Jerk: The Worst Business Lesson from the Steve Jobs Biography and the central point, that those already inclined will use the bio as an excuse to extend their assholery, I accept entirely. There was though, something that bothered me about the piece and initially I couldn’t put my finger on it.
The article ends thusly:
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.
And therein lies my problem. There is little doubt, based on personal experience, that being an asshole was an essential component to Jobs’ success and, not only that, denying this fact represents a dangerous from of faux egalitarianism.
The first thing that must be kept in mind was that Steve Jobs was not just a member of the 1%. He was, like Michael Jordan or William Faulkner, in the top 1% of the 1% or, in other words, not a normal person or “Child of God like any other” at all. We are talking about a group of people for whom being born with at least one transcendent talent is a necessary but not sufficient condition. They also develop a degree of obsessiveness about honing their skills that at best borders on mental illness and usually goes beyond. For those rare people willing to look under the hood of fandom, the unifying characteristic of this group is an almost complete inability to form relationships with normal, healthy people. Society usually negotiates a de facto contract with heroes like this, accepting (and ignoring) the dark sides – the vicious competitiveness, the rampant alcoholism, the assholery – in return for the benefits, whether they be works of art, championship rings or iPads. The need to closely identify with members of this club is understandably aspirational, but also contains a healthy dose of wishful, delusional thinking.
In a corporate sense, it is not enough to have one leader, no matter how talented or charismatic. It is also necessary to attract other uber-talented people but even more importantly, a leader like Jobs must drag all of his employees into his obsessive, driven world at least to some extent. You do not do this with Montessori, self-actualization based techniques or with monetary incentives. You do it with fear – fear of being fired, excluded, publicly belittled or not living up to your own self-image. Greatness rarely, if ever arises from comfort, happiness and complacency and by all accounts, Apple achieved greatness through its CEO’s ability to extend his ruthless, obsessive, unsettled, perfectionist nature into every corner of the company. By being a asshole.
It is true, as McNichol illustrates, that many hundreds of idiot managers with little hint as to the true extent of Jobs’ abilities will copy his affectations to the detriment of their staff and society at large. But Jobs, like Jordan and Faulkner before him, are not examples to be followed or even really to be fully understood. To attempt to do so is largely a conceit, an attempt to glean their advantages without the internal misery, single-mindedness and self-exclusion from normal life that the development of their talents required.