You’re A Cultist, Too. Review of *Steve Jobs* [and *Clever*]

Boxing fans, like everyone else on earth, consume drama. ‘Action Fighters‘ draw the crowds with danger while skilled fighters, ironically enough, weave reality TV plot lines and talk trash to stay relevant. Drama outside the ring is still drama.

Steve Jobs was a drama magnet. Not all of it was his fault, to be sure, be he was an unabashed, deliberate showman. There was always going to be a biography about Steve Jobs, he was a narcissistic egomaniac after all, and he would probably have written the thing himself if he had to. We care because he was a driven businessman, but cringe over his dark personality. BOTH qualities were necessary to his success.

Consider the best part of this book:

Jobs’ biological father, Abdulfattah “John” Jandali, was a restauranteur and once owned an Italian joint in San Jose:

“That was a wonderful place”, he (Abdulfattah) said. “All of the successful technology people used to come there. Even Steve Jobs.” [Mona, Steve’s biological ister] Simpson was stunned. “Oh, yeah, he used to come in, and he was a sweet guy, and a big tipper,” her father added. Mona was able to refrain from blurting out, STEVE JOBS IS YOUR SON!

Jobs was understandably astonished when she mentioned the restaurant near San Jose. He could recall being there and even meeting the man who was his biological father. “I remember meeting the owner. He was Syrian. Balding. We shook hands.”

I call BS. There’s no way Jobs remembers this more than a decade later, but even without a drop of desire to meet Jandali, he still found a way to stir the pot.

Steve Jobs was a difficult dude. I heard this before reading the book and was a bit skeptical. Can’t be that bad, right?

Well it was:

  • He continuously decomposed things into black and white. Something was either “insanely great” or “shit”.
  • When things were shit he personally insulted whomever presented him with the shit.
  • When things were “insanely great” he had a habit of convincing himself that it was his idea all along, robbing true creators of the credit.
  • He lied. A lot. He lied to himself, he lied to others. He lied about facts of history. He lied about facts of his life and others’. He cheated and he stole and he lied.
  • He was supremely self-centered as well as self-delusional. He almost certainly, as was suggested in the book, suffered from a mild case of narcissistic personality disorder.

Imagine working for a guy like that? Yet he inspired thousands of workaholic overachievers to give him (and so us) their most precious gift: their greatest work.

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, the co-authors of *Clever*, are no doubt baffled. Theirs is a book about managing business superstars and its model leader doesn’t look much like Steve Jobs.

It’s actually closer to Will Wright, video game “auteur”, manager of teams and an employee of Electronic Arts. They describe him as indispensable, semi-autonomous, extremely productive and inspiring. Managing Clevers is meant to be a deferential process: they just need some infrastructure, a few other Clevers around and the peace to get on with it.

Being a rather typical business book, *Clever* is padded out with enough fluff to make a struggling high school student blush. But let’s see how Steve Jobs does against a list of the qualities that maximize the effectiveness of leading ‘Clevers’:

  • Explain and persuade (vs use authority)
  • Influence with expertise (vs hierarchy)
  • Amplify their achievements and don’t take any credit
  • Protect them from politics

Not doing so well. Steve was an autocrat who mistreated his people, except those who flattered his artistic conceit. ‘Artists’ were given special treatment.

  • Talk straight
  • Encourage failure
  • Give them time and don’t interfere
  • Don’t create bureaucracy
  • Tell them what (vs how)
  • Give people space and resources

Steve does better on this second list, though reading the tone of *Clever* I might have changed the the title to *Mothering*. And there was nothing motherly about Steve.

But Clevers are, above all, performance junkies and Steve inelegantly dismissed people’s perceived performance barriers. He did it by declaring their work crap when deep down they agreed. He didn’t need to belittle them, but those that stand in awe of the resulting outperformance forgive that.

*Clever* discusses this rush of achievement but then misses the most important leadership quality of all and THE one Steve was known for.

The ability to inspire.

But let’s step back first for some necessary biographical detail.

The world is flush with narcissistics with delusions of grandeur. This one was a man gifted with extraordinary circumstance. He was raised in Silicon Valley. He and Woz (a legitimate, world-class genius) were given the gift of each other’s friendship. He was catapulted into fame and fortune while witnessing what awesome ability and hard work can achieve. His very first work experiences were with A+ players. Who can say that? If you had that and lost it, wouldn’t you want to recreate it?

But he was a willful, obstinate and shockingly difficult human being. So he took that amazing training and screwed it all up; unfortunately, that’s the only way to learn.

And learn he did. He learned by emptying his bank account, pawing at success with NeXT and Pixar. But we don’t see the stumbles and heartache so we don’t learn with him.

Instead we focus on the design of the Pixar office and other vacuous minutiae like his personal life. He didn’t care about anyone then, so why should we care now? You can feel Steve’s guiding hand pausing on the Pixar supernova then pushing us to the third act and his spectacular successes (“Talk about the iPhone! Talk about the iPad!”). Well-trodden ground with lots of puff. But where are the disgruntled insiders with new scoops?

So I didn’t even finish the thing.

I came away from this book with an appreciation for the staggering power of inspirational charisma. A charitable comparison would be to a preacher that can heal with his words. A less charitable one would be to a cult leader or con man. They all share the gift of enthusiasm without affectation, which apparently very few people can resist. We’re all cultists at heart.

And there are all kinds of interesting facets to this gift that the book implicitly explores.

One comment that kept coming up was his ability to “figure out whether you know what you’re talking about”. Time for a little (more) Robin Hanson, who taught me that leadership makes you both better at lying and better at detecting lies.

Perhaps… the implicit elites in a band [are] better able to read such clues [signaling lying], either via better raw abilities or because power frees one to use such abilities (perhaps by reducing fear of retribution).

Leaders lie a lot because they can get away with it and call people out on lies because it isn’t socially costly for them to do so.

Another example: take Steve’s desire to ‘control all aspects of the user experience’. He indulged the most extreme form of this inclination at NeXT: they built operating systems, software, hardware, factories to build the hardware and programming languages to write the software. All the while we read of Steve’s compulsive need for everything to benefit from the touch of design. Much is made of his obsession over painting the assembly machines in factories in spite of the operating complications that result.

And we see yet another side to Steve when he forced into negotiations as a partner (or, gasp, supplicant) in a deal. He’s terrible at it: all hardball and temper tantrums. As we learned in the 2008 financial crisis, assholes can’t negotiate, even to save their own bacon. Was the purity of his ‘complete experience’ vision rooted in his inability to play with others?

And let’s face, the ‘go it alone’/walled garden strategy was a failure for personal computers. Bill Gates (who, by the way, is easily the most interesting and funny character in the book) was right: you win by getting everyone into your sandbox.

Luckily for Steve, he got over this with the Pixar/Disney deal and only selectively lengthened his supply chain in the the smartphone/tablet era, where integrated software and hardware is essential. Indeed, the Microsoft PC strategy is as big a failure for smartphones as the Apple strategy was for the personal computer.

I don’t think that anyone who reads this book would want to retroactively make themselves Steve Jobs’ friend. Such a relationship would be unpleasant. You’d alternately bask in the attention of his charismania and wither under his belittling rage. Mostly, however, you’d live out your life without a hint that he knew who you were. Indifference is painful. He wasn’t ‘friendly’.

But he brings new life to the common lessons of startup success: work hard, be relentlessly resourceful, be enthusiastic.

Sure there is a correlation between success and some unpleasant qualities, but I still hold the faith that good guys can win, too.

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One Response to You’re A Cultist, Too. Review of *Steve Jobs* [and *Clever*]

  1. Pingback: Whew | feed on my links

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