Steve Jobs died in October of 2011. Since then, there have been two major movies made about him and the publication of Walter Issacson’s authorized biography. It is hard to dispute that in the entire history of humans, there has never been an entrepreneur so worthy of examination and praise. As Walter Isaacson and others have pointed out, the companies he created revolutionized personal computers, digital publishing, music, telephones, tablets and animated movies. To those astonishing achievements, we could add that he revolutionized digital space itself, making it delightful and responsive to the average consumer and then went on to do the same with retail space and even the physical packaging in which our newest technology arrives in our hands. Now we have the Apple Watch which, while developed immediately after his death, has the fingerprints of his creativity all over it, extending his legacy even further. The influence of his product designs on cultural taste in general is immeasurable. In doing all this, he built two great companies—Pixar and Apple, the latter becoming the most valuable company on earth in dollar terms alone. Clearly, there is much to be admired in the man, his vision and his accomplishments.
Because Steve Jobs’ legacy looms so large, there is also a danger that new entrepreneurs will find it convenient to refer to him to justify a bullying, badgering, bombastic, brutal, cold, calculating and manipulative leadership style. Steve Jobs was a screaming genius—figuratively and, unfortunately, literally. Precisely for that reason, it is important for wiser people with deep leadership experience to weigh in and state emphatically that this side of his brand of leadership was not even close to optimal. We may seek to understand and even empathize with one possessed of so much talent and intelligence and yet so deficient in psychological balance that he was driven to treat others as he did. But it is critical that we identify it as unacceptable, inexcusable, unjustifiable, not to be laughed off or dismissed and certainly not to be emulated. Abuse always has a cause and a result. That doesn’t mitigate it. It is an “ends justifies the means” approach, a self-justifying pathology It is certainly not to be confused with any form of well-considered strategic leadership. The corollary argument that the end products could not have been created any other way stands on a foundation of toothpicks. We do not here similar tales of temperament coming out of Google or Facebook or any number of other companies that are mountains in the new digital landscape. Personally, I have worked for a few people who had styles similar to that of Jobs, and coached numerous people who worked under such confusing blends of affection and aggression. I know them all too well. A psychologist would have a field day diagnosing them and I have no doubt that in the not too distant future, someone will write a thesis or a book doing just that with Jobs as their subject, going way beyond the general idea that he carried a deep wound from being adopted. As Alice Miller pointed out in her book, The Untouched Key, in most biographies (and I would apply this to Isaacson’s of Jobs), “individual childhood events usually are not given any prominence.” With the explosive expansion of knowledge in the field of epigenetics, those “events” will now have to include an inquiry into the state of a mother during her pregnancy, the nature of the birth itself and the critical first few months of life—all of which increasingly look, in combination, like the true foundation of personality, as opposed to the traditional view that it is the first three to seven years in which this foundation is established. To shine light into these earliest moments of life will be daunting but not impossible to the determined investigative biographer.
It’s important to state that I am a fan and owner of Apple products, as are many of you reading this, in all likelihood. But delighting in the results doesn’t mean we can’t imagine getting there differently. How can we know, beyond our own intuitive sense and life experience and a few good current contrasting examples that there was and is a better way? We can’t conduct a classic double-blind study in which we have Steve Jobs as he was leading Apple and a transformed Steve Jobs leading the exact same Apple in parallel universes. But we don’t have to. Jim Collins and his merry band of researchers at Stanford have done the work for us. They closely examined some of the greatest companies of the last hundred or more years in comparison to other companies in the same business slots to see what distinguished the best. They have published their results in three of the most important books for anyone interested in leadership, particularly entrepreneurial leadership: Built to Last, Good to Great and Great by Choice. What they found was that generally, the most successful leaders are possessed of a paradoxical blend of fierce determination to succeed with, of all things, humility. Yes, humility. These are generally people who are driven, but not unrelentingly. They are possessed of strong egos but are not egomaniacs. They are demanding but not histrionic and brutal. They make a lot of tough decisions, but they also share responsibility for a lot of decisions with their people. They include and empower. Perhaps most significantly, they are not arrogant. That directly contradicts the popular image promulgated not only by Jobs but by someone as different from him as Donald Trump. In fact, when asked about their success, over and over again these leaders avoid taking credit, instead giving it to their people, recognizing that it truly takes not just one team but many teams working in a coordinated dance to attain and sustain success on a large scale. That is the norm. Jobs’ charisma was incredibly appealing to many, including, some who were willing to suffer at his hand. But stylistically, the abusive side of his brand of leadership is an outlier when considered in the context of a large population of Fortune 500 company leaders as well as leaders in smaller entrepreneurships. We should discourage anyone from emulating it and, instead, show a better way.
In my own experience of more than forty years in business, the best leaders I have personally experienced did indeed possess the paradoxical combination of intense ambition and humility. They were also cool in the face of enormous challenges, holding to their basic business principles and practices to pull their people into a creative problem solving process that would get them through and position them to take advantage of the opportunities that inevitably arise as markets contract and expand. I have had the privilege of witnessing and working with men and women who have the flexibility, self-confidence and wisdom to lead from the front, the middle and the back, depending on what was called for…sometimes all three within a given day.
By leading from the front I mean defining the vision, setting the overall strategic direction, setting the agenda in a particular moment, making the command decisions that cannot be optimally made by consensus or majority vote and, in one of their most important roles, being the Educator in Chief to continuously advance his teams’ knowledge and understanding of both the short-term and long-term context. In these activities, he or she occupies the king’s or queen’s throne and embodies the kind of parental energy that can set boundaries, embrace specific values, create positive, respectful conditions, identify necessary daily practices that create consistency and a common language of achievement concepts. These leaders inspire people to stretch themselves into their very best work to serve a greater cause. This leader avoids creating false urgency and instead lays out timetables for achievement that his teams can make sense of, even if they are demanding. The language from this position can be direct or poetic but above all, it is clear and without psychological games.
By leading from the middle I mean stepping away from the king or queen energy into the brother and sister energy. In these situations, the leader conducts him/herself as equal in power to the rest of the team, engaging in inquiry collaboratively and assuming that he/she doesn’t necessarily have all the best ideas and cannot understand what people downstream from him/her are dealing with without deep inquiry and deeper listening and meditation on the input. This communicates respect to the individual teammates that goes down like honey. In such highly collaborative settings, a vision and the strategy and tactics necessary to achieve it can become the authentic property of everyone, not just the leader. Smart “leaders from the middle” will often enlist outsider professionals to facilitate meetings so that they can step into an egalitarian position with their team members. Doing so humanizes them and fosters their emotional and mental availability to ideas other than their own or their top advisors.
By leading from the back I mean fully empowering people to do the jobs they are qualified to do, cheering them as they go forward and resisting the temptation to tweak or fine-tune every decision they make. Leaders who do the latter often do not realize that they are betraying a deep insecurity of their own that manifests in being unable to trust others and release them to do a job that is more than good enough, even excellent, but simply different from how the leader might have gotten there. The ability to lead from the back is, along with leading from the middle, critical in developing the increasing interdependence of strong players based on ever-growing competencies and trust, and ultimately engendering an organization that is truly self-sustaining as it feeds on its own joy in co-creating vitality, innovation and success in all measures. Leading from the back embodies the kind of parental energy that sees accurately what others are ready to try and encourages them to be adventurous and self-correct when things fall short of expectations. There is no “I told ya so” in this leader. His or her energy is strong in compassion, encouragement, understanding and patience.
The best leaders genuinely are the kind of people about whom staff will say, “I love him/her. I would do anything for him/her within my power.” The beauty is, such leaders do not ask people to go to extremes, the way Steve Jobs did. They are more interested in nurturing talented people who are devoted to the best available practices for their respective positions on a consistent basis across days, weeks, months and years.
Steve Jobs has proven that a company can succeed with tyrannical and bullying leadership. That doesn’t mean it should.
Jobs was right when he said of himself, as reported by Walter Isaacson, “I am not well made.” He knew, for all his brilliance and all his rationalizations about making the future, there were things within him dark, chaotic and incomplete. He was a seeker from a fairly young age—living on a commune, experimenting with recreational drugs, including LSD, traveling to India to study with a Buddhist guru, and developing a series of relationships with mentor/father figures. On some level he sensed that there was a deep pain living in him that had something to do with being adopted. In my experience, that kind of early hurt calls for psychotherapy, but not any psychotherapy from any average therapist. It requires brilliance and a profound process that can ultimately reach the earliest hurts, hurts that the mind cannot identify but the body remembers. The ferocity of his reactivity points toward insults to the system in the first moments of life, including during gestation in the womb, the birth experience and the period immediately following when he and all children are utterly defenseless. Unfortunately, he never found his way to such a person and process.
Interestingly, he did have a brief dalliance with mock Primal Therapy when he was 19. Primal Therapy had grabbed headlines and become highly controversial after the publication of the The Primal Scream, by Arthur Janov, in 1970. A number of celebrities were open about attending Janov’s institute in Los Angeles, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, actor, James Earl Jones and popular pianist, Roger Williams. It may seem curious, then, that Jobs chose to go to Oregon in late 1974 for his therapy at a center that was not run or endorsed by Janov. According to Isaccson, he paid $1000 for a twelve week experience—a commitment far less than what Janov required at The Primal Institute, knowing that the process through which he and his therapists led people was painful and challenging and necessitated an “all in” mentality to see it through to its full benefits. Since I did receive therapy from Janov and his staff in my late twenties for a total of two years in the early Seventies, I can say from personal knowledge that if Jobs had applied at The Primal Institute, he would not have been accepted. It was the policy of the Institute at that time to only take people who were twenty-five or older, and for very good reason. Younger people were not sufficiently developed to handle the peeling away of defenses and processing of tumultuous early childhood hurt while still getting up and going to work to take care of themselves every day. It took a certain level of experience, emotional resources and some maturity to be able to do that. Though it was not known at the time that the left side of the brain doesn’t fully boot up until around twenty-five, clinical experience had made the point to Janov and his team.
I offer these details because Isaacson was apparently unaware of them when writing his biography of Jobs and offers no explanation as to why Jobs went to Oregon to have an experience with “adherents” of the therapy (which might mean anything), when it was well-known that Janov himself was practicing on Almont Street in West Hollywood. Janov was insistent that a person could not practice Primal Therapy until they had completed rigorous training that took a number of years at his Institute. It included their having a sustained and thorough experience of their own with the primal process, as well as a requirement that they get their PhD in psychology if they didn’t already have it. If they completed this regimen of therapy, training and academic achievement, they were then Certified Primal Therapists and free to practice as such. There were a couple of so called “Feeling Centers” that appeared, in Los Angeles and Oregon, run by people many of whom might have been in therapy with Janov for a period of time but did not complete the training and were not endorsed by him. The mere fact that the Oregon center accepted a nineteen year old Jobs is alarming to anyone, such as myself, with first-hand experience at Janov’s Institute.
As Isaacson reports, Jobs was quickly disillusioned with his experience in Oregon. Since my own experience at the institute was stunning and deeply healing, as was that of the overwhelming majority of the people I knew there at the time, I can only wonder how he might have changed had he applied directly to The Primal Institute in his mid to late twenties…or had he stumbled upon some other equally potent transformational process, fully committed to it and made it part of his daily practice for the rest of his life. I have been privileged to know and work with a few such rare leaders. Jobs would likely still have been a visionary and ambitious but a more consistently humanistic and respectful leader who knew clearly where the line was between being demanding and being abusive. Unfortunately, whatever he did try was either insufficient in itself to address the power of his pain, or his practice of that modality was insufficient. Instead, he continued to visit rage and tears upon those around him.
In all likelihood, the overwhelming majority of the leaders detailed in Jim Collins’ books were neither devotees of Buddhism or Western psychotherapy. They were gifted by childhood experience with more balanced temperaments to lead through a kind of humble ambition. Still, we do see pathological behavior emerge in many of these people in terms of how they manipulate the public, promulgate misinformation, spin or withhold information, and spend absurdly large sums of money lobbying state and federal lawmakers to influence policy in their direction, often specifically to lower or remove regulation and oversight of their behavior to the detriment of the public.
A serious discussion of leadership has to address such behavior. It should not be walled up by economic or business concepts, or glibly dismissed with platitudes about different personalities. Leaders are people and as such, just as likely to suffer “the slings and arrows” as the rest of us. A psychological perspective is necessary to come to a full understanding of who they are, why they do what they do, and what, if anything they might be able to personally do about it themselves if and when they at least have sufficient pre-cognition to realize they are not “well-made.”
Plain and simple, bullying is the action of a deeply afflicted soul blasting its pain outward. It may be done “hot” the way Jobs did it or “cold” the way others do it, manipulating markets and bringing the largest economy in the world to its knees. We should never accept it as a valid leadership style. It should be dissected in MBA programs designed to catch the tendencies early and direct people towards therapeutic practices. We should also be aware that people suffering from such internal strife, be it hot or cold, are worthy of empathy, hard as it may be to give at times. The bully is not a happy camper. He or she is an abused person who has taken on the behavior of the powerful aggressor. Being on either the giving or receiving end is a devastatingly limited and tortured place to live.
The last thing we need is for such leaders to be made icons by the press and for people to be willing to follow them unflinchingly, leaving a trail of their own blood in the street in the name of fortune or “creating the future.” In fact, the opposite is called for. Such leaders need people who realize they are suffering from serious psychic pain, people who are courageous and strong enough to stand up to them and say, “No, we will not follow you as long as you treat us like this, no matter how smart and talented you are. Get help!”