“This is sh*t,” was Steve Jobs’ usual retort, whether reacting to a long-ago Apple II designer or to the first draft of what would become Apple’s “Think Different” tagline. Walter Isaacson’s absorbing and often exhilarting account of the man, his life and his company, recounts how Steve Jobs took a middling MicroSoft road kill of a company (Apple) and made it the most valuable company in the world. Meanwhile, he helped Walt Disney reclaim its animation birthright—“We at Pixar are the real thing and you Disney guys are sh*t,” Michael Eisner remembers. Steve Jobs did it breaking all the rules.
To be sure, Jobs could be indifferent, distracted, and often cruel. When Pixar was losing money and layoffs were inevitable, Jobs insisted that firings be immediate with no severance. Relenting to his human resources assistant, Jobs said, “OK, give them two weeks, but the notice is retroactive from two weeks ago.” Tina Redse, an early girlfriend and near fiancé (Jobs asked her to marry him), concluded that Jobs suffered from Narcissisitc Personality Disorder, a diagnosis taken from a psychiatric manual that all who worked with the man eventually understood.
But, cruelty and indifference were the least of it. Steve Jobs’ obsessive fixation on detail, design and beauty were unprecedented. “Breaking all the rules” means a complete disregard for the orthodoxy of business management. What business school advocates a preoccupation with managing details and superficial appearances? What MBA program would instruct the CEO spending half of an hour deciding the color of restroom signs (what is the perfect shade of cobalt blue)? What organizational behavior class suggests we ignore the formal organization and rely only on the CEO’s top 100 confederates and allies? What Fortune 500 company sincerely puts the customer first without ever asking the customer what she wants?
Isaacson posits there is something in Steve Jobs as a supreme business leader, one who is lacking in any sense of business management skill and decorum, which needs to be studied and understood. Steve Jobs’ followers eventually found his preternatural self-confidence a source of inspiration to do the impossible. “This is sh*t” is a kind of a question that means, “Tell me why this is the best way to do it.” Like so many that came after him, the poor Apple II designer found a much-improved design over the one Jobs’ criticized. “He did it better because Steve challenged him,” said Bill Atkinson (an early Mac team leader) and because “he’s usually right.” Years later, Jobs challenged Corning to develop the iPhone’s “Gorilla Glass” (the glass contributed to the phone’s beauty, and it gave the phone weight, gravitas) in an excruciatingly painful 6 weeks.
Steve Jobs dreamed of a legacy that awed people. He wanted to be in the pantheon of great product innovators, indeed surpassing Edwin Land and even his early icons William Hewitt and David Packard. But, Jobs created more than great products. Just as significant was his ability to create great companies with valuable brands. And, he created two of the best of his era: Apple and Pixar.
Contemporary historians like Malcolm Gladwell now debate who will be the longest remembered business personage of the last 100 years. Will it be the business game changer (Henry Ford), the astute manager (Jack Welch), the philanthropist (Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates) or the visionary (Walt Disney)? For students of business, the question revolves around who made the greatest contribution to the future of business and, by that, the greatest contribution to mankind, and to civilization’s progress. For Walter Isaacson, it has to be Steve Jobs.