There's a lot of to-do at Apple over the new Steve Jobs biography. Not only are top execs at the company, including CEO Tim Cook and head of design Jony Ive, praising Becoming Steve Jobs, but they're also slamming the Walter Isaacson book--the one that Steve Jobs himself authorized and cooperated with.

Cook called the Isaacson's Steve Jobs a "tremendous disservice" to the company's co-founder. "The person I read about there is somebody I would never have wanted to work with over all this time." Ive said in a New Yorker profile that his opinion of the older book "couldn't be any lower."

The Apple insiders are pulling for the new biography as one that shows Jobs as a kinder and gentler kind of guy. Marketing consultant Regis McKenna, who was a friend of Jobs for many years, called the executives' reaction "purely an emotional issue" in an interview with BloombergBusiness, arguing that the executives are, in part, reflections of Jobs. His redemption is theirs. Also, common sense suggests that the top people might not have experienced the worst of his tirades. And, both Ive and Cook largely missed the more brutal early years, when Jobs had so much to learn.

Appreciation for the genius of Jobs as a CEO too often overlooks how bad he was at management in Apple's early days. A quick buzz through any of the honest short bios that appeared at the time of his death, like one from BloombergBusiness, shows how bad a manager he could be, particularly before being kicked out of Apple.

"Back then he was uncontrollable," [VC and early Apple board member Arthur] Rock said in a 2007 interview with Institutional Investor. "He got ideas in his head, and the hell with what anybody else wanted to do. Being a founder of the company, he went off and did them regardless of whether it ended up being good for the company."

The original Mac was clearly a breakthrough. It was also a financial failure at first and Jobs wasn't able to sell it effectively. It took starting NeXT and buying and running Pixar for him to work through at least some of the shortcomings he had. When he came back to Apple and eventually became CEO, he cleared out the board and the management team. Jon Rubenstein, who had headed up hardware engineering at NeXT, and Avie Tevanian, who led software development, came over. And Jobs found Ive working at Apple, but not getting the recognition his work ethic and clear abilities deserved.

And yet, even then Jobs fell crucially short. Tevanian left because he felt Jobs wouldn't fairly share credit. Rubenstein and Jobs had a permanent falling out when the former went to Palm, where he eventually ran the company. It was an opportunity he'd never have had at Apple. And there are many horror stories from others, who were lower in the organization. Jobs didn't develop the reputation of being mercurial out of thin air.

Jobs succeeded spectacularly, but mostly in spite of his flaws, not because of them. He could have insisted on quality and still found better ways to communicate and draw people in. In one sense, Cook is perhaps a better CEO than Jobs was. The value of the company has exploded, largely because of the way that Cook has handled strategic issues, smartly pushed into China, and otherwise driven the company's value beyond expectation. Is he perfect? Of course not. No one is. And that's the point. Looking at famous entrepreneurs for inspiration and lessons is important. But never forget that what you learn can be as much about what not to do. Want to be the next Steve Jobs? Great. Do it better than he ever did.

Published on: Mar 30, 2015
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