Does genius trump abuse?

Rotten-apple I must admit to being taken aback by the universal outpouring of grief, passion and adulation at the recent passing of Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs. It reminded me of the reaction that followed the passing of Michael Jackson and George Steinbrenner, respectively. I've added 'Jacko' and 'The Boss' to a list that includes Jobs because, frankly, all three were very, very bad guys.

Articles about Jobs and his abusive behavior were plentiful before he contracted pancreatic cancer (but curiously scarce since then). In fact, here are links to just five pieces from such reputable media outlets as Forbes, and The London Daily Mail (insert links).

I'll let you read the full texts, but consider the following excerpts:

– Despite an estimated net worth of $7 billion, Jobs had NO public record of giving to charity.
– He and his board covered up his initial pancreatic cancer diagnosis for nine months, a totally unethical, if not illegal, stunt by the CEO of a huge, publicly-traded company.
– His factories regularly employed young teenagers and people below the legal working age of 16, made them work grueling hours and tried desperately to cover it all up.
– Jobs had two Apple security guards search the home of a San Francisco man and threatened him and his family with immigration trouble if he didn't return blueprints for a missing iPhone prototype.

But, that's just scratching the surface of a man who was clearly one of the all-time nasty leaders in the history of business. Consider these tidbits:

– Forbes named Jobs to their 'Bully Bosses Hall of Fame'.
– Jobs routinely parked his Mercedes in the handicapped parking space.
– He consistently reduced employees to tears and fired long-time subordinates in front of their peers, often after ridiculing them as “bozos”.
– He claimed personal credit for scores of ideas and patents that other Apple employees had invented.
– Stanford professor Robert Sutton said he was “…besieged with Steve Jobs stories” when he announced he was writing a book entitled, 'The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't'.
– Jobs always considered himself the smartest guy in the room, and Apple's employees and products were either “insanely great” or “shit”.
– Unhappy with a product called MobileMe, Jobs told the product development team, “You've tarnished Apple's reputation. You should hate each other for having let each other down.”

Two final tales:
– A former employee said of Jobs, ”No one greets him or says hi to him. Low-ranking employees are afraid of him. I remember him walking around the campus one time and groups of people in his way would just split and let him walk through.”
– Former Apple PR chief Laurence Clavere once told a colleague that before heading into a meeting with Jobs, she embraced the mindset of a bullfighter entering the ring. “I pretend I'm already dead.”

So, there you have it. Multiple examples from impeccable sources that Jobs was arguably one of the worst human beings to ever lead a global organization. And, yet, the fawning, hagiographic profiles completely dominate the media and paint Jobs as some sort of Thomas Edison/Mother Theresa hybrid.  Is that because:

– The media really is a pale imitation of its former self, and balanced, objective reporting simply no longer exists?

– Or does genius totally trump abusive and unethical behavior? Are we willing to turn a blind eye to one man's endless record to inhumanity to his fellow man and paint him as a god because of his genius?

I'd like to hear your thoughts.

In the meantime, you won't catch me dropping off a bouquet of flowers at the nearest Apple store or lighting a candle in his memory. I'm more likely to quote the classic line from 'The Wizard of Oz' and sing: “Ding dong the Witch is dead. Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch!”

12 thoughts on “Does genius trump abuse?

  1. It’s an interesting question: should management reputation types hold the media to the fire for balanced reporting about nasty CEO types?
    Ideally, yes. Realistically, no, and see why at Let’s face it, too many PR people are stuck in the unenviable position of spinning and defending that same lousy behavior.
    Meanwhile, the “media” as we’ve come to know it is understaffed, takes easy pickings and is often owned by corporate entities where fawning coverage for big business leaders are the only advertising equivalency formulas that have ever worked worth a damn.
    Like Jobs, the NY Times essentially gave Henry Ford a free pass:
    He was called “the father of mass production” and “the man who put the world on wheels” with just a brief mention of his many hateful screeds and failings as a human being.

  2. You’re probably very close to the truth when you describe Jobs as conflicted, Julie. There were clearly two very different sides to the man. I’d just like to see the media objectively cover each.

  3. While I agree that Jobs’ posthumous sainthood is largely a media creation, I am additionally struck by how the public has mindlessly gone along for that ride. To be sure, I remember being the cynic at those brainstorming sessions in midtown PR firms, saying that the public would never be so gullible as to go along with what was being proposed; having lived among that public, I’m now cynical in an entirely different way.

  4. Knowing little or nothing about the man before he died, I believe Steve Jobs was a deeply conflicted and tortured soul. On the one hand, you had the entrepreneurial marketing genius who treated employees abominably; on the other hand, you had a guy who made a spiritual quest to India and came back a vegetarian Buddhist? These 2 sides don’t add up at all.
    Regarding his philanthropy (or lack thereof), I have read that he donated $ millions anonymously (let’s hope so).
    And his greatest PR move was his Stanford U. commencement speech, where he outlined his meteoric rise from the “adoption boy” that no one wanted to the renegade “superstar geek” that everyone wanted to emulate.
    There are very few (if any) Milton Hershey-type CEOs left in this world, unfortunately.

  5. Ha. I still fear Ed. The actual point of my blog was whether we, as management reputation types, should allow the media a free pass for painting Jobs as a saint and reporting in anything but a fair and balanced way. I agree that parking in handicapped spaces is bad, but not a real show-stopper. On the other hand, systematic abuse of subordinates is brutal. As for Henry Ford, his anti-Semitic views were pretty well known during his lifetime. I don’t have the time to research the various obits that ran when Ford passed, but I’ll bet the photographs and illustrations didn’t include a halo on the top of his head.

  6. While I agree with you that this outpouring of adulation is confusing (if there were an Internet in 1947, I can’t imagine similar grief being expressed when Henry Ford passed), I’m not sure we should be bothered by the stories of employees avoiding Jobs when he walked through campus. I once worked with Ed, and I can report the same type of frightening shunning taking place whenever he walked by.

  7. Thanks for your comments, Richard. The bigger question for public relations professionals is this: Why hasn’t the media portrayed a fair and balanced image of Jobs? What’s with the hero worship? The real story is far more interesting. I question whether the Fourth Estate is still doing a decent job of reporting the news as opposed to editorializing it.

  8. There are various kinds of adulation or hatred. There’s the remote kind of which it may be said, “I didn’t know him, but he touched my life in a positive/negative way.” There’s, “That bastard humiliated me and I will never forget it.” There’s, “We had good times, we had bad times.” Steve Jobs, particularly as a younger man, was insensitive to the feelings of those around him, whether it was while delivering his “This is crap!” meme or saying to potential customers, “You’re crazy if you don’t buy this technology!” He was a man obsessed with creation from within the “distortion field” and people’s feelings, unless they were delight, just did not connect with him. Was he evil? Please. Evil is easy to define: Bernie Madoff on the light side, Adolph Hitler on the weighty. Steve Jobs was a creative man on a mission — excellence — and if you could not bring excellence, you were likely to find yourself in a keruffle. Kerfuffle, not murder, not assault, not battery, bit the recipient of your boss’s opinion that your work was less than exemplary. For all that he made wonderful little gadgets that just worked, and provided an industry with a model all could steal from several years later.

  9. Clearly million dollar pay packages and countless stock options would make even the most abused employee think twice about speaking up (as would the swift and severe repercussions Jobs meted out to ‘disloyal” employees). I’ve heard it said there’s a fine line between genius and madness. Seems like in Steve’s case, it was a fine line between genius and badness.

  10. All those folks that worked for mean Mr Jobs are so angry at him for being an asshole they are returning all their preferred stock and bonuses accumulated over the years.
    Granted Jobs was not a warm and fuzzy person but he fashioned results that others would give up their first born for.
    Carol Bartz ruled in the same way as Jobs, unfortunately she did not have the “supreme ruler” genius that goes with it. Perhaps proving bad guys sometimes finish first and last.
    BTW get your order in for I-Pad 8