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Becoming Steve Jobs
The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader
Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli
Apple is the most valuable company in the world; also, thanks to the intense secrecy that surrounds its almost invariably successful products, it is the most watched and talked about. But more important than any of that is the way it has become a corporate temple in honour of a myth — that of a great leader who is deposed by human enemies, spends time in the wilderness, returns to save his people and, finally, is struck down by the gods.
As with any such myth, interpretations of its meaning proliferate after the death. Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs appeared in 2011 — it was deemed “official”, though Jobs never read it. Isaacson saw Jobs as part genius, part jerk, a man who could be cruel, thoughtless and cold, but who was possessed of supreme, almost superhuman gifts. Cook’s remark denying Jobs’s selfishness was directed at Isaacson, as he goes on to make clear: “I thought the Isaacson book did him a tremendous disservice.” Jony Ive, Apple’s design chief, says his “regard couldn’t be any lower” for the Isaacson book.
Becoming Steve Jobs is, above all, a corrective to the Isaacson interpretation. Rick Tetzeli is a journalist, now on Fast Company; Brent Schlender is a technology reporter and one of the very few journalists trusted by Jobs. He has, as a result, almost 25 years of material, much of it previously unpublished and much of it perfectly designed to refute Isaacson.
One fairly typical story has Jobs happily helping out a stranger whose old sports car had broken down. Steve and his wife, Laurene, were good, neighbourly types, involved in the life of Palo Alto, the heart of Silicon Valley. He was a good father and, in his final incarnation, a sound, thoughtful and listening manager.
For Tetzeli and Schlender, the “part jerk” interpretation is a crude extrapolation of Jobs’s manner until 1985, when he was ejected into the wilderness by the directors of the company he had co-founded. The ensuing years, in which he tried and failed to design and sell a new type of high- powered computer, were ones in which he was able to mull over his mistakes. These mistakes, the authors acknowledge, were pretty bad. He was impatient, quick to anger and filled with an overweening — and frequently misguided — self-belief. He was incapable of compromise.
In the wilderness, it was not his own company that taught him a new way of management but the one into which he bought soon after leaving Apple. This was Pixar, which would go on to make Toy Story, Finding Nemo and so on. Led by Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, Pixar seems to have been an object lesson in how to manage the talented and often rather strange people drawn to making cartoons. Uncharacteristically, Jobs did not interfere: he watched and learnt. And what he learnt was that sometimes it is best “to forgo micromanagement and give good, talented people the room they need to succeed”.
As a result, when he returned to Apple in 1996 — it was by then on its deathbed — he was Steve 2.0, a renewed and rebooted man with no less perfectionist fire in his soul but with much more empathy and a more profound sense of what made gifted people tick. The result was the most remarkable corporate resurrection of our time — perhaps of any time. But the most telling sign of the success of Steve 2.0 is not the balance sheet or the market capitalisation, it is Tim Cook. Jobs had created a company that would outlast him and anointed exactly the right successor.
That, at least, is the Schlender/ Tetzeli interpretation, and the one now evidently favoured by both the vast and garrulous Apple fanbase and the company’s hierarchy. The Isaacson interpretation is, for the moment, a minority view. I don’t know which is right but I suspect the distinction is tribal rather than rational.
Rationally, it is an unremarkable claim that Jobs’s ejection from Apple led him to reconsider his management style and that he learnt new ways from Pixar. It is also not difficult to believe that both interpretations are correct in different ways. Jobs was clearly a complex package — he was many things at once — so the issue becomes one of emphasis rather than evidence.
In the end, it is the need to interpret that is the point. As in Christianity and Islam, the presiding myth of Apple has led, after the death of its prophet, to factionalism. We’re just getting the Apple Watch, the latest great product launch, but really what the fans need is St Paul, the encoder of the myth into dogma.
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