The Real Lesson of Steve Jobs: Results Trump Personality

Like many people, I’m addicted to reading about Steve Jobs.  I’ve said before that he’s a towering figure whose name will be on a par with Ford or Rockefeller–an all-time great.  But I’ve also had a hard time reconciling the greatness and pettiness of the man.

I recently read a Wired article from 2012 that offers a useful taxonomy for how people react to Jobs’ story:

“In one camp are what you might call the acolytes. They’re businesspeople who have taken the life of Steve Jobs as license to become more aggressive as visionaries, as competitors, and above all as bosses….

The second camp is what you might call the rejectors. These are entrepreneurs who, on reading about Jobs since his death, have recoiled from the total picture of the man—not just his treatment of employees but the dictatorial, uncompromising way that he approached life.”

I freely admit to being a rejector.  After all, as early as 2006, I wrote that I’d rather prioritize family over business success:

Yet I understand the hero worship of the acolytes.  Jobs is the greatest business genius of our time, and a man of nearly unparalleled charisma, the kind of man who could win over a room even as he was insulting them:

But I believe that attributing Steve’s success to his harsh personality is mistaking correlation for causation.  The real lesson of Steve Jobs is that success is the best deodorant.  When Steve was a stubborn arrogant jerk in the 1980s, he was fired from Apple–not because he was a stubborn, arrogant jerk, but because he wasn’t delivering business results.  When Steve was a stubborn arrogant jerk after his return, he was celebrated–not because he was a stubborn, arrogant jerk, but because he was delivering business results.

It’s like a beautiful actress with a “difficult” personality–she gets parts in spite of her personality, not because of it.  Or, as one writer put it when describing a young Denise Richards, “Let’s face it–if she looked like Kathy Bates, she’d be slinging Popcorn Chicken at KFC.”

By all means, have high standards and demand greatness.  Those are Jobs character traits that helped him succeed.  But don’t lump them in with his cruelty and selfishness.  For every 1,000 wannabe entrepreneurs that revel in their “bluntness,” I’ll bet there’s 999 assholes who are doomed to failure, and one entrepreneur whose talent somehow manages to compensate for his toxic personality.

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