Apple is on the verge of announcing the iPhone 5, the latest version of what is arguably the most successful consumer electronics product of all time.

If sales of the new iPhone are as huge as some pundits are predicting, it may help debunk the pernicious myth that Apple's success is solely due to the personal influence of its late co-founder and CEO, Steve Jobs.

I believe the idolization of Jobs has had a negative overall effect on the corporate world.  Steve Jobs was (and still is) constantly cited as role model for managers and executives, many of whom strive to imitate him. Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to imitate what Jobs did badly than what he did well.

There is no question that Steve Jobs was an innovator and a generally effective CEO. However, Jobs was also known for being needlessly cruel, and made a habit of belittling employees, calling them "bozos" and so forth, and generally making them thoroughly miserable.

Executives who seek to imitate Jobs seem follow this line of logic:

  • Steve Jobs was successful.
  • Steve jobs acted like a jerk.
  • Therefore, I will be successful if I act like a jerk.

While it would silly to attribute the trend totally to the influence of Steve Jobs on the business world, there's no doubt that the business world is riddled with executives who treat people badly. There have even been articles in serious business publications suggesting that acting like a psychopath can make a manager more successful.

The problem is that Steve Jobs was not successful because he acted like a jerk but in spite of the fact he acted like a jerk.  While Apple may benefited enormously from Jobs's creativity, I know productivity suffered as the result of his undisciplined personal behavior.

How do I know this?  Simple. I've worked for jerks and they always make people less productive.  Jerks create a climate of fear and dread that makes risk-taking less likely. Jerks create passive-aggressive behavior in the people around them, which creates a constant overhead of confusion.  Jerks also generate an ongoing need for "personal triage" among key personnel whose feeling are hurt to the point where they're ready to leave the company.

Good people will tolerate that kind of work environment when they're working for somebody as innovative and successful as Steve Jobs, because there are compensating advantages.  However, 99.9% of the managers who imitate Jobs are not as innovative as Jobs--nor anywhere close. Consequently, they imitate the part of Jobs that's easy to imitate--bad behavior--and wrongly believe that they're making their teams as effective as Apple's.

As Apple continues to be successful without Jobs at the helm, it weakens the myth that Jobs was the linchpin of Apple's success and that his bad behavior was therefore essential to the company.  If the string of hit products continues, someday Steve Jobs may be seen, not as a role model, but a deeply flawed human being who benefited from the tolerance of the people around him.

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