It’s Time to Stop Lionizing Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs died on Oct. 5, 2011 after a long battle with cancer.

As seemingly everyone on the planet is well aware, Jobs started a quirky little company named Apple that eventually morphed into a massive technology behemoth. Apple helped popularize PCs as a home device, kicked off the current obsession with tablets and smartphones, and made investors very rich in the bargain.

When he died, Jobs was lionized as the greatest chief executive of the past twenty years. In many ways, that hyperbole was justified: having returned to Apple in 1996 after a long absence, he took a company teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and gave it a renewed sense of focus, which in turn resulted in a series of market-defining products, including the iPod, iPhone, iPad, MacBook Air, iOS, and Mac OS X. (When explaining his business philosophy, Jobs loved quoting Wayne Gretzky: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”)

Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, those products helped drive up Apple’s previously moribund stock price. On the eve of Jobs’ passing, the company had never been so highly valued; the iPhone 4S, then on the verge of release, would become yet another bestseller; and the iPad had cornered the nascent consumer-tablet market. So it’s unsurprising how, two years later, Jobs continues to be venerated as an unassailable icon of technology leadership: his good buddy Larry Ellison insists on national television that Apple will never be the same, investors and tech bloggers crow that the company’s drifting without a steely hand at the helm, and the stock price has started to roller-coaster as Google Android eats up the mobile-device market.

But it pays to remember that, whatever his strengths, Jobs wasn’t a perfect CEO. Apple under his watch released some notable flops, including the Power Mac G4 Cube (a device that failed to sell well, despite near-universal praise for its design), the “hockey puck” USB Mouse (which didn’t fit anyone’s grip), Apple TV (which has sold reasonably well, but not in sufficient numbers that Apple executives are willing to call it anything more than a “hobby”), and MobileMe (the failures of which drove Jobs into an infamous, profanity-laced tirade). Go all the way back to Jobs’ founding stint at Apple, and you have the Apple Lisa, a cutting-edge (at least for the early ‘80s) PC that didn’t attract blockbuster sales.

And when it comes to the era-defining blockbusters—the iPod and the iPhone, for example—Jobs didn’t sit down with a pad of paper and come up with the designs himself: each product was the result of innovation on multiple levels, from the engineers and designers obsessed with a single component to chief designer Jony Ive’s focus on perfection. Flip through Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, and it quickly becomes clear that much of the technology that would end up powering Apple’s breakthroughs—such as touchscreens—was already being cooked up in the bowels of the company’s laboratories and design studios; executives such as Ive would make the choice to show them to Jobs, who would then approve further exploration.

In fact, executives’ quotes throughout Isaacson’s help paint a picture of Jobs as a mercurial personality, someone who needed to be obeyed but also managed and even hand-held to an extraordinary degree. (Although not that much hand-holding: beneath his New Age exterior, Jobs was ultimately a stone-cold operator comfortable with laying off whole working groups or analyzing a P&L sheet; you can’t run a company that size any other way.)

Jobs’ key strength was his ability to serve as ringmaster, picking the best ideas and making sure the resulting products fit his exacting standards. He had a singular vision in an era in which many products are built by committee; he refused to cut corners in an effort to simply get something to market; and he was willing to use every tool in his arsenal—including some very epic yelling—to achieve those goals. To make a rough sports analogy, he was more like a Major League baseball player with excellent stats who, every three to five years, managed to hit a 100-mile home run. That makes him a fantastic CEO; not a God.

Jobs would probably agree.

 

Image: bloomua/Shutterstock.com

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