Should Steve Jobs “management style” continue?

Here’s a dilemma for those of us concerned about workplace bullies: Steve Jobs.  One of the arguments for ‘zero tolerance’ and proposed legislation is that no one is irreplaceable.   The public response to Jobs’ death heralding him as this generation’s Edison also praised him for his ability to utilize team work and it’s hard to imagine anyone waiting in the wings who could have had such a global impact.  But, stories about his true ‘management style ‘ have been public for years.  So the real question is, does Steve Jobs fall under the definition of a workplace bully?   Would legislation, like the bill proposed by the Workplace Bullying Institute currently pending in several States, have crippled Jobs’ ability to be a visionary of historic proportions?  How do we take academic and legislative definitions and apply them to real workplace relationships?  These are questions that all of us involved in lobbying for legislation need to wrestle with.

“Apple CEO Steve Jobs is known for his obsessive attention to detail and iron-fisted management style. He is often accused of making his subordinates cry and firing employees arbitrarily. But Jobs’ subordinates remain loyal. Several deputies–even those who have left the company–say they’ve never done better work. As one Apple employee told journalist John Martellaro, “His autocracy is balanced by his famous charisma–he can make the task of designing a power supply feel like a mission from God.” [Forbes 2009 ]

This week a New York Times article, “Defending Life’s Work With Words of a Tyrant,” begins with a story of grade school bullying.  If you do a Google search on the term “workplace-bullying” you’ll find most reporters LOVE to start with phrases like: bullying moves out of the playground and into the board room.  The New York Times is no exception:

The first time Steve Jobs ever bullied anyone was in the third grade. He and some pals “basically destroyed” the teacher, he once said.

For the next half-century, Mr. Jobs never let up. He chewed out subordinates and partners who failed to deliver, trashed competitors who did not measure up and told know-it-all pundits to take a hike. He had a vision of greatness that he wielded to reshape the computer, telephone and entertainment industries, and he would brook no compromise.

Maybe it is only the despair people feel about the stagnating American economy, but the announcement of the death of the Apple co-founder Wednesday seemed to mark the end of something: in an era of limits, Mr. Jobs was the last great tyrant.

Why do employees put up with it?

Most definitions of workplace bullying refer to a repeated pattern that includes actions like verbal abuse and humiliation that take place over time.  But, while the NYTimes article seems to confirm this pattern, why do employees put up with it? And more importantly, if they do buy in, is it still fair to call it bullying?

There are numerous articles that link narcissism to bully bosses.   Back in 2006, Forbes noted how difficult it was to work for visionary CEOs like Jobs in an article titled, The Narcissistic CEO.

The desire to change the system is a defining element of narcissism. And while it can be inspirational to work for someone like that, interacting with a narcissist CEO can be torture. Don’t expect praise. Get used to hearing the word “I.” And be able to take lots of harshly worded criticism.

Jobs talked openly with Forbes  about his management style and the work culture he was creating:

“When I hire somebody really senior, competence is the ante. They have to be really smart. But the real issue for me is, Are they going to fall in love with Apple? Because if they fall in love with Apple, everything else will take care of itself. They’ll want to do what’s best for Apple, not what’s best for them, what’s best for Steve, or anybody else.”

A players hire A+ players

Surveys and workplace bullying pundits say that bosses bully because they have low self-esteem and feel inferior to their employees.   But, according to Guy Kawaski, Jobs certainly didn’t fall into this category:

Actually, Steve believed that A players hire A players—that is people who are as good as they are. I refined this slightly—my theory is that A players hire people even better than themselves. It’s clear, though, that B players hire C players so they can feel superior to them, and C players hire D players. If you start hiring B players, expect what Steve called “the bozo explosion” to happen in your organization.

Jobs own take on his demanding reputation:

“My job is to not be easy on people. My job is to make them better. My job is to pull things together from different parts of the company and clear the ways and get the resources for the key projects. And to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better, coming up with more aggressive visions of how it could be.” [CNN]

Should this ‘Leadership Legacy’ really continue?

Hopefully Jobs replacement will have greater empathy towards employees both here and abroad.  Considering the pride Jobs reportedly took in controlling each detail of the product he created, his apparent disregard toward the suicides and horrendous working conditions in factories in China that create the iPhone is deeply disturbing.  Back in 2009 the Harvard Business Review probably summed up his legacy as a leader best:

…Humility is not part of the Steve Jobs leadership repertoire — and that’s worked out fine for him. But humility has become a crucial part of the job description for leaders who aren’t Steve Jobs. So marvel at his products, applaud his feel for design, wonder at his capacity to cast such a large shadow over so many industries — and, by all means, pray for his speedy recovery and long health.  But don’t think you’ll do better as a leader by acting more like Apple’s leader. Trust the art, not the artist. [Harvard Business Review 2009]

RIP Steve Jobs!

This article was written on a MAC and published to iPads & iPhones everywhere.  

6 thoughts on “Should Steve Jobs “management style” continue?

  1. Pingback: The Intuitive Group Pays Tribute to Steve Jobs « The Intuitive Group, Inc. on Personal Growth & Leadership

  2. I am so encouraged to read this post — I have long held that Steve Jobs was the perfect example of how complex the bully label can be. In fact, when I proposed writing a piece for a major news outlet (not HuffingtonPost), the reply was that they loved Steve Jobs and would not publish anything negative about him. So much for objectivity!

    The fact that you ended the post with no clear conclusion was a perfect demonstration of just how inconclusive the topic is. There is no real answer. Clearly, had any employee set out to eliminate Jobs because he was a bully, they’d quickly find that law or no law, they would lose that battle. Claims that anti-bully policies weed out bully leaders are absurd. Moreover, as you ask, bully or not, would getting rid of Jobs been wise? He may well have been the boss from hell, I don’t know. But I do know that even bullies have something to offer, but the more we tag them with the bully label, the less likely they are to change.


  3. The problem with some bullies is that they own the playground. They have ultimate control over everything – from the way people think, talk and act, to how they conduct themselves and whether or not they speak up or out. The various laws that exist in different countries make it extremely difficult to speak up or to even write about bullying behaviours particularly by those who are ‘well respected’. In some cases, it might well be that the ‘alleged bully’ is not a particularly bad person, it is just that their behaviours are such that they are perceived to be a bully. Once their behaviours are changed, they come back to the rest of general population.
    Boards want CEOS in place because they expect the CEO will drive the organisation to get results or outcomes. Publicly listed companies have shareholders who want a return on investment. In the process, some people do get exposed to bullying behaviours.
    As for selection, there is also a view that like picks like. So if the bully sits at the top of the tree, it is likely that they will pick a ‘clone’, and so it goes on down the line.
    The whole issue about bullying and harassment is a complex matter requiring complex solutions. Simply changing legislation will not working. The more difficult task comes when changes have to be made to culture, not only in the workplace, but also in society, particularly when it comes to tolerating and accepting abuse of power, that many of us describe as bullying. We need a world where all people are treated with respect and dignity, not abuse, intolerance, intimidation, threats or other coercive behaviours.


    • Thank you for your comment. I agree that legislation is not a panacea. But, I do believe that women’s position in the workplace was dramatically influenced by sexual harassment legislation and it did force the corporate culture to change. Obviously the problem still exists but I doubt many women who lived through it would want to go back to the way things were. My hope is that the same will happen here. I’m supporting the petition for national legislation because I think that it’s time to start making changes in the corporate culture. I like the petition because it’s not trying to dictate a solution – but rather asks that representatives of many different sides of the issue come together to try to find a workable solution.


  4. Steve Jobs worship is sickening. He was a feckless snake oil salesman whose ‘brilliance’ was nothing more than the ability to manipulate and charm others into giving him control of their intellectual property. He bullied workers because inside he was a small man. People with real power don’t display it by pushing others around like a child when things don’t go their way. He created a need and sold it to people desperate for an identity, to be an original like the millions of others who purchased something they never knew they couldn’t live with out. YAY.


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