Friday, 28 October 2011

Steve Jobs’ deification serves a very basic and fundamental human need

“I am not that surprised that an academic of entrepreneurship (are you kidding me?) would lead a story about one of the world's best innovators and CEO's about that he actually and in fact ! OMG had body odour as a teenager because of his diet, not to mention the rest of your embarrassing piece. Forbes would be best sticking with writers that are inspired by such great entrepreneurs as Steve Jobs, and not with writers such as this, who are unhappy they have not had the courage to 'live the life they love and not settle' and so sit in front of their computer with not much else to do but trying to bring others down. Shame on you Mr Vermeulen”.

This is just one of the comments I received on my earlier piece “Steve Jobs – the man was fallible” (also published on my Forbes blog). Of course, this was not unanticipated; having the audacity to suggest that, in fact, the great man did not possess the ability to walk on water was the closest thing to business blasphemy. And indeed a written stoning duly followed.

But why is suggesting that a human being like Steve Jobs was in fact fallible – who, in the same piece, I also called “a management phenomenon”, “fantastically able”, “a legend”, and “a great leader” – by some considered to be such an act of blasphemy? All I did was claim that he was “fallible”, “not omnipotent”, and “not always right”, which as far as I can see comes with the definition of being human?

And I guess that’s exactly it; in life and certainly in death Steve Jobs transcended the status of being human and reached the status of deity. A journalist of the Guardian compared the reaction (especially in the US) to the death of Steve Jobs with the reaction in England to the death of Princess Diana; a collective outpour of almost aggressive emotion by people who only ever saw the person they are grieving about briefly on television or at best in a distance. Suggesting Princess Diana was fallible was not a healthy idea immediately following her death (and still isn’t); nor was suggesting Steve Jobs was human.

We are inclined to deify successful people in the public eye, and in our time that certainly includes CEOs. In the past, in various cultures, it may have been ancient warriors, Olympians, or saints. They became mythical and transcended humanity, quite literally reaching God-like status.

Historians and geneticists argue that this inclination for deification is actually deeply embedded in the human psyche, and we have evolved to be prone to worship. There is increasing consensus that man came to dominate the earth – and for instance drive out Neanderthalers, who were in fact stronger, likely more intelligent, and had more sophisticated tools – because of our superior ability to organize into larger social systems. And a crucial role in this, fostering social cohesion, was religion, which centers on myths and deities. This inclination for worship very likely became embedded into our genetic system, and it is yearning to come out and be satisfied, and great people such as Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, and Lady Di serve to fulfill this need.

But that of course does not mean that they were infallible and could in fact walk on water. We just don’t want to hear it. Great CEOs realize that their near deification is a gross exaggeration, and sometimes even get annoyed by its suggestion – Amex’s Ken Chenault told me that he did not like it at all, and I have seen that same reaction in Southwest’s Herb Kelleher. Slightly less-great CEOs do start to believe their own status, and people like Enron’s Jeff Skilling or Ahold’s Cees van der Hoeven come to mind; not coincidentally they are often associated with spectacular business downfalls. I have never spoken to Steve Jobs, but I am guessing he might not have disagreed with the qualifications “not omnipotent”, “not always right” and, most of all, “human”.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Steve Jobs – the man was fallible

As a student, at Reed College, Steve Jobs came to believe that if he ate only fruits he would eliminate all mucus and not need to shower anymore. It didn’t work. He didn’t smell good. When he got a job at Atari, given his odor, he was swiftly moved into the night shift, where he would be less disruptive to the nostrils of his fellow colleagues.

The job at Atari exposed him to the earliest generation of video games. It also exposed him to the world business and what it meant build up and run a company. Some years later, with Steve Wozniak, he founded Apple in Silicon Valley (of course in a garage) and quite quickly, although just in his late twenties, grew to be a management phenomenon, featuring in the legendary business book by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman “In Search of Excellence”.

But, in fact, shortly after the book became a bestseller, by the mid 1980s, Apple was in trouble. Although their computers were far ahead of their time in terms of usability – mostly thanks to the Graphical User Interface (based on an idea he had cunningly copied from Xerox) – they were just bloody expensive. Too expensive for most people. For example, the so-called Lisa retailed for no less than $10,000 (and that is 1982 dollars!). John Sculley – CEO – recalled “We were so insular, that we could not manufacture a product to sell for under $3,000.” Steve Jobs was fantastically able to assemble and motivate a team op people that managed to invent a truly revolutionary product, but he also was unable to turn it into profit.

When Jobs was fired from Apple – in 1985 – CEO John Sculley took control. Sculley is often described as a bit of a failure, because “nothing revolutionary came out of Apple under his watch”, “he could have done so much more with the company” and especially for “being stupid enough to boot out a genius like Steve Jobs”. However, the years after Sculley took over were some of Apple’s most profitable. The man did something right, and that was focus on exploiting the competitive advantage that Apple had built up.

In management research, following terminology cornered by the legendary Stanford professor Jim March, we often say that firms have to balance exploration with exploitation. Exploration refers to developing new sources of competitive advantage and growth. Exploitation refers to making money out of them. Steve Jobs was “insanely great” at exploration, but not – at the time – at exploitation. Sculley was.

Now Steve Jobs is a legend. And rightly so; our world literally would have looked different without him. However, what Steve Jobs’ legendary status also tells me is that we – mere mortals – are inclined to overestimate the omnipotence of CEOs. We overdo it when we ascribe the failure of an entire company to just one man or woman (e.g. Enron’s Jeff Skilling) but also when we ascribe the entire success of a company to one individual.

Steve Jobs wasn’t omnipotent (John Sculley had qualities Jobs didn’t) and he wasn’t always right (eating only fruits does not eliminate the need for an occasional shower). His day-to-day influence on Apple over the last years must have been limited, given his rapidly and severely deteriorating health. If anything, he simply would not have been able to be around enough to control and take care of everything. Nevertheless, the company did well in spite of his absence. And of course that is his laudable achievement too; he managed to build a company that could do well without him. And perhaps that may prove to be his best business lesson after all: how a great leader eventually makes himself superfluous.