Two Books, One Steve Jobs
Exactly how big a jerk was Steve Jobs, and what does this teach us about management?
These are major questions of the moment, with a new book about Jobs coming out today that is being positioned, with the active support of the people who now run Apple, as a more nuanced and accurate portrait of the mercurial entrepreneur than Walter Isaacson’s mega-best-selling 2011 biography. In a twist that Jobs surely would have found amusing, Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” was an authorized work effectively commissioned by its subject, while Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli’s “Becoming Steve Jobs” started with Schlender unearthing a bunch of old notes and tapes of interviews with Jobs, with whom he had barely spoken for years.
I read the two books in succession over the past few days. I’m friendly with all three authors, so the fact that I really enjoyed both books may not count for much, and I’m in no position to give a no-holds-barred critical review. But the contrasts and commonalities between the two are interesting and instructive enough to deserve a closer look.
Isaacson’s book is a straightforward, chronologically arranged, leave-nothing-out biography, with lots and lots about Jobs’s personal life. Schlender’s and Tetzeli’s book is more of a business biography, much shorter than Isaacson’s, with the most careful attention paid to the years between Jobs’s ignominious departure from Apple in 1985 and his strange return in 1997 (it only became triumphal a few years later), when his main endeavors were unsuccessful computer-maker NeXT and successful-but-only-after-a-long-wait computer-animator Pixar.
Before his marriage to Laurene Powell in 1991, Jobs’s personal life was pretty weird, so Isaacson’s book contains more than a few lurid and loopy tales. Isaacson also, in excerpting from his many long interviews with Jobs’s friends and colleagues (and former friends and former colleagues), gravitates toward the most shocking stories about Jobs’s behavior and the pithiest quotes about them. He tends to balance these out with positive stories and quotes, but I’m guessing that it’s this incessant invoking of Jobs’s insufferable side that so grates on Jobs proteges such as Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook and design chief Jony Ive, who have both criticized the book. Their objections -- Ives’s in a recent New Yorker profile and Cook’s in a quote from “Becoming Steve Jobs” that I’ll get to in a few paragraphs -- do bring to mind Victorian ladies in need of smelling salts, but are understandable.
For a reader without such emotional baggage, though, the Steve Jobses portrayed in the two books are very clearly the same person. Schlender and Tetzeli don’t ignore the man’s dark side -- the second-to-last chapter of their book is titled “Blind Spots, Grudges and Sharp Elbows” -- but they compartmentalize it more than Isaacson does. They also present it in the context of a story of emotional and professional growth that contrasts with Isaacson's narrative. It’s not that a reader doesn’t see any mellowing or maturation of the Jobs portrayed in Isaacson’s biography. It’s that Isaacson, whose interactions with Jobs were mostly confined to the last few years of the man’s life, necessarily sees that life through the lens of the middle-aged Jobs -- and that Jobs didn’t see himself as dramatically changed from the guy who co-founded Apple at age 21. As long-time Pixar President Ed Catmull tells Schlender and Tetzeli, Jobs wasn't the kind of guy to “psychoanalyze himself.”
Schlender and Tetzeli don’t really psychoanalyze Jobs either, but they do argue that in the years away from Apple he became more patient and more willing to let creative underlings (most notably Pixar’s John Lasseter) be creative in their own way. Also, while neither book spells this out, I got the sense from both that Jobs became better at receiving opposing arguments. He had always listened to them and often changed his mind, but in the early years he tended to infuriate those who disagreed with him by parroting their arguments back to them a few days later as if they were his own. In his second go-round at Apple, he was actually capable of acknowledging that he had been wrong.
Still, it’s the constants that stand out in both books. I don’t think Jobs’s management genius can be distilled to a couple of bullet points (when Isaacson tried for a Harvard Business Review article, he ended up with 14), but there are two things that stick in my mind after consuming 1,000-plus pages on Jobs.
One is the notion of strong opinions, weakly held, derived from Bayesian statistics and recommended by both futurists and investors as the best way to make decisions in an uncertain world. Jobs was ferociously opinionated, and usually made decisions quickly without lots of hemming and hawing. But he sought out advice and even disagreement, and -- as noted above -- was perfectly capable of changing his mind. This was also why Jobs was able to keep such smart people around him. They had to put up with occasional temper tantrums, but they also knew that their views counted.
Another was the nature of Jobs’s selfishness. He was sometimes shockingly willing to sacrifice others in the pursuit of his aims. Those aims, though, generally involved creating great things, not enhancing his own wealth or status. Yes, there is a funny moment in the Schlender-Tetzeli book where Catmull overhears Jobs calling his friend Larry Ellison (Oracle's co-founder and a billionaire many times over) on the day of the Pixar initial public offering that made him a billionaire for the first time -- “Hello, Larry?” Jobs said. “I made it.” But it was what his companies created that mattered most to him. He was capable of quickly abandoning people -- even long-time friends -- whom he no longer thought could help Apple or his other companies achieve their goals. Yet he was also hugely and even selflessly supportive of those he believed could help him make more “insanely great” things.
That brings me to a story from the Schlender-Tetzeli book that has already been widely reported: Tim Cook’s account of offering part of his liver to Jobs in 2009. Jobs needed a new liver, partial liver transplants can work, and Cook had the same rare blood type as Jobs. When Cook made the offer at Jobs’s bedside, the response was “No, I’ll never let you do that.” To Cook, this was evidence of the “tremendous disservice” that Isaacson had done in portraying Jobs as a “greedy, selfish egomaniac.”
Somebody that’s selfish doesn’t reply like that. I mean, here’s a guy, he’s dying, he’s very close to death because of his liver issue, and here’s someone healthy offering a way out. I said, “Steve, I’m perfectly healthy, I’ve been checked out. Here’s the medical report. I can do this and I’m not putting myself at risk, I’ll be fine.” And he doesn’t even think about it.
Jobs’s answer was entirely compatible, though, with the notion that Apple’s success mattered more to him than anything. He knew he was likely to die within a few years even with a liver transplant -- and in fact he got a new liver in March 2009 and died in October 2011. Cook was thus at that point far more important to Apple’s long-term success than he was. So of course the answer was no. At least, that’s my theory. It is supported by the evidence of not just one but two excellent books.
No, I hadn’t read Isaacson’s biography before. Sorry, Walter.
I worked with Schlender and Tetzeli for years at Fortune; I’ve known Isaacson informally for a while, and edited his 2012 Harvard Business Review article, “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs.”
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