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.