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Steve Jobs: The Crazy Man Who Changed the World

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. ...They push the human race forward. ... Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.
-- Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) "Think Different" ad campaign

If you read enough business books, you'll learn that certain principles are fundamental to being a great leader. Here are just a few:

  • Treat everyone in your organization with respect.
  • Always tell the truth.
  • Accept responsibility for failure and share credit for success.

The wisdom of following these basic rules seems beyond dispute to me. So how then is it possible that the greatest CEO of all time consistently violated each and every one of them?

Walter Isaacson indirectly attempts to answer that vexing question in his outstanding biography of Steve Jobs. We learn that Jobs' brand of greatness was such a unique blend of disparate elements that it couldn't possibly be replicated even if one were to try. And we come away with a much better understanding of Jobs' uncanny ability to attract, inspire, and motivate a remarkably talented group of colleagues over the years.

Things you shouldn't learn in kindergarten
Isaacson pulls no punches in showing us that Jobs, whether at work or at home, was very difficult to be around. Even his closest friends admitted that he often humiliated people and felt that normal rules didn't apply to him. And almost all of his colleagues mentioned his proclivity for bending the truth and taking credit for other peoples' ideas.

We knew a lot about this already, of course. We knew, for example, that Jobs initially denied paternity of his first child, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And we knew about allegations that he cheated his friend and partner Steve Wozniak out of a bonus back in the early days when Jobs was still at Atari.

Isaacson provides us with even more disturbing evidence of Jobs' bad behavior, however. Jobs often belittled waitresses and frequently sent his food back, saying it was "garbage." Tina Redse, one of the great loves of his life, believed he suffered from narcissistic personality disorder. She told Isaacson that she "couldn't abide his unkindness" and felt that his capacity for empathy was lacking.

Jony Ive, one of Jobs' closest collaborators at Apple, also felt Jobs could be deliberately hurtful. Apparently, Jobs didn't feel that the "normal rules of social engagement" applied to him, according to Ive. The business writer Joe Nocera also noticed the tendency toward cruelty, writing of Jobs that there was "a conscious readiness, even a perverse eagerness to put people down, humiliate them, show he was smarter."

In addition, others noticed a striking lack of loyalty from Jobs. Andy Hertzfeld, an early colleague who remained friends throughout the years, said that Jobs was the "opposite of loyal" and that he had to abandon people he was close to. A perfect example of this was when Jobs refused to offer stock options prior to Apple's IPO to Daniel Kottke, Jobs' soul mate in college, who had joined the company when it was still located in the garage.

Jobs was aware of his flaws and told Apple's former human resources director that he "did learn some things along the way." Isaacson notes, however, that Jobs continued to shout at people in meetings, while also ranting about competitors, right up until the end of his tenure as CEO. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) and Adobe (Nasdaq: ADBE  ) were two companies in particular that were the objects of his wrath in his closing days.

Things we don't learn in kindergarten
So how did such a flawed man inspire and motivate his team members to create outstanding products that revolutionized six industries? The six, according to Isaacson, are personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing.

This is a central question in Isaacson's book, and ultimately we discover that the positive attributes of Jobs' personality far outweighed the negative ones. Despite all of his cruelty and pettiness, I came away from this biography admiring him even more than I did before. In a world full of cookie-cutter business leaders with their MBAs and tailored suits, Jobs was a true original who was able to "think different" by living differently.

Isaacson's account of cultural influences on Jobs was my favorite part of the book. As a young man, Jobs read Shakespeare and Plato, and he liked King Lear and Moby Dick. He also loved the music of the '60s -- Bob Dylan was perhaps his biggest hero throughout his life.

And unlike a lot of baby boomers who may have attended the odd Dead show before heading off to business school, Jobs embraced the counterculture with the zeal of a fanatic. He dropped acid, went to India, and even worked on a communal farm. Jobs underlined the importance of all this, when he said of Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) Bill Gates, "He'd be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger." About LSD in particular, Jobs said, "It reinforced my sense of what was important -- creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and human consciousness as much as I could."

This passion for books, music, and even drugs was later evident in his love of his work. One of the most moving anecdotes from the biography involved a meeting between Jobs and the musician Wynton Marsalis. Jobs enthusiastically talked for two hours about what iTunes could do, even though Marsalis wasn't interested at all in technology. Marsalis later recalled that, "He was a man possessed. After a while, I started looking at him and not the computer, because I was so fascinated with his passion."

Things we should learn in kindergarten
With his characteristic flair for simplicity, Jobs once said, "What I'm best at doing is finding a group of talented people and making things with them." Despite his bad behavior on numerous occasions, talented colleagues were inspired and motivated by his passion and authenticity. And Isaacson notes that Jobs would allow them to challenge him, and sometimes he'd even respect them for it.

One of his colleagues on the Macintosh team recalled that Jobs would shout and call you names, and yet she considered herself "the absolute luckiest person in the world to have worked with him." Jobs always had high expectations for his teams, and as a result, they would frequently meet or surpass his expectations.

Jobs' wife, Laurene Powell, may have described his genius best by saying, "He doesn't have social graces, such as putting himself in other people's shoes, but he cares deeply about empowering humankind, the advancement of humankind, and putting the right tools in their hands." When you think of everything that Jobs was able to accomplish during his lifetime, it's clear that he had an incredible ability to inspire others to join him in this mission.

Adding to the flow
Isaacson has written a wonderful book that will delight readers from a variety of backgrounds. Prior to reading it, I had admired Jobs' achievements, while grudgingly conceding that his no-nonsense leadership style was effective, though repellent. I now realize that Jobs succeeded despite the bad behavior -- it was his joy in creating amazing products that ultimately led to his remarkable accomplishments.

At the very end of the biography, Jobs answers the question of what drove him. I'll close this review with a short selection from his eloquent reply,

It's about trying to express something in the only way that most of us know how -- because we can't write Bob Dylan songs or Tom Stoppard plays. We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That's what has driven me.

John Reeves owns shares in Apple and Google. You can follow him on Twitter @TMFBane.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Microsoft, and Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, Microsoft, Adobe Systems, and Google, as well as creating a diagonal call position in Adobe Systems and bull call spread positions in Microsoft and Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (16)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2012, at 12:48 PM, ybsofoolish wrote:

    I do not get the feeling that the biographer felt a lot of empathy towards Jobs. Perhaps Jobs didn't really deserve any empathy. He understood exactly who he was and yet seemed to believe that he couldn't be any different. He was not incapable of feeling others vulnerability. Jobs seemed to intuitively know what was the most hurtful thing to say to some one and to actually enjoy being the one who said it. Jobs was mean and I don't mean that in a small way. He was mean in the largest way he could possibly be.

    His greatest redeeming value was his desire to be creative. He imagined software and products that were as smooth and simple to use as possible and he inspired or berated others into creating it. The closest analogy is Mozart and his crazy destructive life combined with his beautiful music. The beauty was in the product not the producer. Maybe he really couldn't help himself. Maybe there is only so much beauty one person can be responsible for. A sort of conservation of total beauty rather than mass. I don't believe that and neither did Walter, but it sure is weird how genius is often handicapped in fundamental ways.

    Major take away: don't ever put off major medical treatment because it is painful or scary. Do it and live. Put it off and die. Also humility is really important. We need it especially when we are usually right.

  • Report this Comment On January 03, 2012, at 10:35 PM, TMFNewCow wrote:

    Great review. I just finished it recently and couldn't have written a better recap.

    -- Evan

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2012, at 7:21 AM, TMFBane wrote:

    Thanks, Evan! Much appreciated.

  • Report this Comment On January 04, 2012, at 4:58 PM, racchole wrote:

    I have not read the biography, I have purchased an iPod in the past, and a big part of my life is based on the fact that a Macintosh invaded my living room when I was a child.

    Jobs was an excellent CEO. Seems like the positives end there. Anybody who is rude to a waiter or waitress does not deserve any respect.

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