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by William H. Benson

December 29, 2011

     “Steve Jobs was a genius at connecting art to technology, of making leaps based on intuition and imagination. He knew how to make emotional connections with those around him and with his customers.” Walter Isaacson recently wrote and published a biography on Steve Jobs after approximately forty interviews with him, shortly before his untimely passing on October 5, 2011, at the age of 56.

     On “60 Minutes” and in articles appearing in The New York Times, Isaacson explained that Steve Jobs was “admired for his consummate skill at persuasion and salesmanship,” and that “he wanted to position each of his businesses and products at the forefront of the information technology for forseeing and setting trends.” He succeeded beyond anyone’s dreams, earning for himself and those who stuck with him incredible wealth and the adulation of millions.

     However, Isaacson admits that there was a dark side to Steve Jobs. He was “considered one of Silicon Valley’s leading egomaniacs.” “His employees described him as an erratic and temperamental manager.” He would scream at them. He would size them up, play good guy versus bad guy with them, and then the next day reverse their roles.

     Quickly they understood that Steve Jobs was explosive, prickly, brittle, emotional, brash, arrogant, and aggressive, and that they were on his emotional roller coaster. Callous, cantankerous, and ungenerous, he rebelled at most forms of authority: he refused to drive a car with a license plate.

     Isaacson once asked him why he acted that way, and he replied, “I am a demanding perfectionist.”

     So many of his employees could not take the verbal punches he threw at them, the bruises and wounds they would feel, that he inflicted, and so they would quit, but those who remained, those who withstood the emotional whipsaw, were his team, the best. He insisted that he would only surround himself with the strongest of personalities, and so he urged managers “not to be too nice.”

     All those who dared to stick with him later admitted that “without Steve Jobs demanding, and pushing, and challenging them to discover their best, they would never have achieved all that they did.” One employee stated it well, “The highs were unbelievable. . . . But the lows were unimaginable.”

     The prime question emerging from the book is, “Could Steve Jobs have achieved what he did without the histrionics, the raw rage, the paroxysms of anger that resulted from his own personal fear of failure?” Possible answers are, “of course he could have,” or “probably not,” and there are arguments for each, but I prefer a third answer “who knows?” We cannot know. Steve Jobs was what he was.

     Niceness, some would argue, is not always the most appropriate tactic when trying to motivate others to perform at their highest level. Have you ever heard of a tender-hearted army general? In certain arenas of live, people should expect to be emotionally punched, and told off. Policemen, judges, coaches, surgeons, teachers, and parents, each, on occasion, must be tough if they are to do their jobs.

      One could argue that Steve Jobs’ gadgets, his tools, were vastly superior to what he was as a person, as a human being. The color and sharpness of the icons, the touch screen, and the seamless integration of numerous functions, invariably produces a couple of descriptive words: “Cool!” and “Neat!” Where he was mean and bullying, his machines were life-enhancing, eye-popping, and rewarding. Isaacson said that “Steve Jobs was a bundle of contradictions.”

     How is it that the designs were greater than the designer? That is a question to ponder. Exceptional larger-than-life people, since the earliest days of the human species, have created imaginative tools. Consider the Clovis spear point. A fair number of millennium ago it was the thing of artistry, carefully crafted, beautiful in its own way, but it offered to those who possessed it a technological advantage, a better tool for procuring food, and for defending oneself from predators and enemies. It too stood midway between art and technology.

     Human beings are, have been, and always will be emotional beings, capable of wounding and of being wounded. We constantly grab spears to make our point—literally sometimes and not so literally other times. The Steve Jobs of the world are very good at delivering messages of what they want. Others are not so keen to receive them. Emotions cloud the transmission. “He knew how to make emotional connections with those around him,” Isaacson wrote. True, but those connections were not the usual pleasantries.

     Christmas is over, and we know now who was naughty and who was nice. The new year 2012 beckons us, and we can resolve this year to be mean or kind, rude or considerate, aggressive or passive. Our choice depends upon what type of relationships we want.