Steve Jobs Is a Lousy Role Model

Last Updated Aug 31, 2011 10:11 AM EDT

Jobs was a technological visionary who created a corporate culture that consistently generates fantastic products. Even so, he's a terrible role model for CEOs specifically and managers in general. Here's why.

As a manager, Jobs was well-known for being needlessly cruel. He had a habit of belittling employees, calling them "bozos" and so forth, and generally making people around him thoroughly miserable.

There is, of course, a "theory" of management that says that Jobs's success, and the success at Apple, was the result of this behavior. However, that's confusing correlation with causality.

The truth is that it's not just possible, but entirely practical, to manage a team or a company, without acting like an ass. Thousands of managers (and hundreds of CEOs) do it all the time.

Belittling behavior, rather than making the manager and team more effective, is a productivity tax.

The employee spends energy (which could otherwise be spent on productive work) overcoming the resulting anxiety and dread. And the manager must similarly spend unnecessary energy apologizing and ameliorating the effects of what, in the end, is a lack of both self respect and self control.

The element of his character that made him (and Apple) successful (i.e. his vision) is not easily emulated. By contrast, any jerk can emulate Jobs's self-indulgent behavior... and (sad to say) all too many managers do so.

Whenever Jobs is touted as a model CEO, I think of the time he pranked somebody who was obviously naive about how the business world works.

In 1998, when Jobs was searching for a replacement CEO, a "consultant" who was convinced he was right for the job kept emailing Jobs. Clearly, the guy didn't understand the hiring process or have even a basic understanding of what would be required in a CEO.

However, rather than just blocking or ignoring the emails, Jobs decided to play a joke on the guy and tell him he was the new CEO. Then, after the guy had probably told everyone of his good fortune and celebrated his success, Jobs rescinded the "offer."

I don't know about you, but in my book playing a cruel joke on somebody who's clueless and confused is a dishonorable act, more worthy of a high school bully than a billionaire.

But that kind of insensitivity was pretty much par for the course with Jobs, whose "vision" always seemed to have a blind spot whenever it came to the needs of others or society at large.

For example, when workers at the Foxconn facility that manufactures the iPhone began committing suicide in record numbers, Jobs waxed lyrical about how the facility's amenities rather than focusing on the real problem, which was that workers were paid a starting salary of $130 a month and were expected to put in 12 hour days, 6 days a week.

Moreover, Apple is virtually the only major high tech firm that's refused to release specific information about the environmental impact of its supply chain.

Not surprisingly, reports are emerging that Apple's supply chain is responsible for major pollution and labor abuses in China. Steve Jobs did little or nothing to change any of this, preferring instead to pour the money into Apple's overstuffed coffers.

Both Jobs (and Apple) could have been as successful -- indeed might very well have been MORE successful -- without the tantrums, without belittling people, without polluting the environment, without working people (literally) to death.

Don't get me wrong. I love Apple gadgets. And I respect Steve Jobs and wish he were healthier -- physically AND emotionally. And I've heard that Jobs has mellowed somewhat over the past few years.

Even so, as things stand, Steve Jobs is not, and should not be, a role model. We can celebrate Apple products, and his long career, but Jobs shouldn't be held up as an sterling example of how CEOs should behave.

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