Why Steve Jobs is the 'reverse case study' for IT leadership

Our research shows bullying could be a serious issue in IT… and Steve Jobs may have been the worst of the lot

It is 1983 and this is a job interview with Steve Jobs and Andy Hertzfield for the role of software manager at Apple. You’re in the hot seat and begin to engage in the usual interview protocol.

Suddenly Steve Jobs burst out: “How old were you when you lost your virginity?”  

You’re confused. Flustered. “What did you say?”  

“Are you a virgin?” yells Jobs even more insistent as you sit and squirm in your seat. “How many times have you taken LSD?”

You can feel a flush rising to your face. What has any of this got to do with anything?

Now the second interviewer, Andy Hertzfield, chips in. He’s attempting to switch the topic to something more relevant. You sit up straight, attempt to regain composure and begin your interview response… 

Only Jobs is back in the fray: “Gobble, gobble, gobble, gobble,” he says in the face of your answers.

“I guess I’m not the right guy,” you stammer awkwardly, as you clatter up to leave.

Steve Jobs was a bully of the worst kind. Yes, sometimes he was horrible because he had “high standards”, but often he was evil in the way only “wanton boys” are to flies.

IDG Connect report looks at the problem of bullying in IT

The episode above is pulled straight out of Walter Isaacson’s ground breaking biography as described by Hertzfield.

Yet oddly, there is something about Steve Jobs and all Apple products which inspires a quasi-religious response. This means that despite the horribleness of the man, many members of his workforce felt they did their best work under him. So, maybe it doesn’t count as bullying when there was so much buy-in from others?  

“My job is to not be easy on people,” Jobs told Fortune. “My job is to make them better. My job is to pull things together from different parts of the company and clear the ways and get the resources for the key projects. And to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better, coming up with more aggressive visions of how it could be.” 

However, while perfectionism and wanting to create a better product can sometimes achieve results, it is certainly not always the case.

In the corporate setting radical ideas rarely surface because they are squashed by a committee of risk-averse individuals who stifle innovation. Steve Jobs firmly put a stop to that by pushing ideas through on his own terms.

Yet there was a downside which can get forgotten amongst the successes. When Jobs had free reign over an organization, he could also ruin products with endless whim-like demands. Factories had to be painted certain colors. Products had to look nice at the expense of functionality. And at NeXT (his next job after the first stint at Apple), Jobs proved a tyrannical despot who actively slowed down a process.

Dr. Namie, Director of the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) believes the characteristics exhibited by Jobs are common in the tech industry:

“The narcissism of the tech entrepreneurs is excessive. The type of personality who starts these kinds of companies are very tough to deal with. They’re quite full of themselves and they’re not about democracy or inclusion. So, they’re natural bullies. But the media will never call them bullies because they’re seen as geniuses and they’re the inventors of our era.”

“A tech firm is like a dysfunctional alcoholic family where the parent is the drunk,” he added. “The poor family. Nobody else drinks but they all have to walk on eggshells. People check their dignity at the door in those kinds of companies. They live a deferred life because the sun is burning so brightly at the top of the company and everyone else is supposed to be a bunch of nothings. It is sickening.”

Steve Jobs’ bullying started young. The first recorded case was in the third grade (aged eight or nine). He and some friends “basically destroyed” the teacher, he once explained. And even though it is a full three years since his death, his bullying was hitting the headlines again this spring.

In a court case where tech workers appealed to the legal system about Google, Adobe, Intel and Apple’s alleged conspiracy to keep workers’ wages low, people were asked to refrain “from unfairly portraying Jobs as a ‘bully’ at the trial.”

Maybe it wasn’t relevant in that particular instance, but there is little to dispute it. The Bite in the Apple, a book by Jobs’ ex-girlfriend and mother of his first child, Chrisann Brennan, published October 2013, painted an even darker portrait of a psychological abuser. In this, she described a “brilliant misfit” who became “positively despotic” and entered a "whole new category of unkindness".

In fact, when Brennan fell pregnant in 1977, Jobs denied paternity saying: "28% of the male population in the United States could be the father". This was ludicrous especially as he did eventually accept the legitimacy of his daughter and she even came live with him for a period in her teens.

To take it one step further, the Gawker argued Jobs’ awfulness contributed to global problems, too. “Apple's success has been built literally on the backs of Chinese workers,” it wrote “many of them children and all of them enduring long shifts and the specter of brutal penalties for mistakes. And, for all his talk of enabling individual expression, Jobs imposed paranoid rules that centralized control of who could say what on his devices and in his company.”

“Over and over, people referred to his reality distortion field,” said Jobs’ biographer Mr. Isaacson. “The rules just didn’t apply to him, whether he was getting a license plate that let him use handicapped parking or building products that people said weren’t possible. Most of the time he was right, and he got away with it.”

Perhaps more surprisingly, but an equally powerful psychological weapon described in Isaacson’s book was the sheer volume of crying Steve Jobs went in for. "Steve was kind of irate and agitated and irrational about lots of things," Google co-founder Sergey Brin told Fox news. While company Vice President Jonathan Rosenberg, added: "In our interactions with Steve, he generally exhibited an irate, difficult, ornery, and petulant behavior."

One question in all this could be: does it reveal something damning about the industry as a whole? Following a piece we drafted a few years back we straw polled our own audience on whether the Steve Jobs school of awfulness was crucial for company leadership and a shocking 15% of respondents felt that it was, whilst 26% felt it might be.

Maybe in the world of original products and new technology you just do have to be that horrible. And a great number of people would argue it is entirely worth it.