Steve Jobs is best known for conducting one of the most stunning business turnarounds in history: leading Apple from the brink of bankruptcy to become the most valuable company in the world.
But many who worked with the famous founder had a love/hate relationship with their boss. Yes, he was inspiring and innovative. But he could also be overbearing, impatient, arrogant. In fact, it was those latter traits that led to Jobs infamously leaving Apple back in 1985, as Jobs and Apple's board simply couldn't see eye to eye.
In the eyes of many, Jobs was a "brilliant jerk."
The brilliant jerk is the high performer who refuses to get along with others. They usually make big profits for the company they work for, but make work miserable for everyone they work with.
So why is it, you may ask, that in a world that seems to increasingly value collaboration and soft skills like emotional intelligence, do brilliant jerks continue to succeed?
A few months ago, I had the chance to address this question. I was hosting the first Reddit "Ask Me Anything" session on emotional intelligence, the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions.
The first hour of the session was pretty tame, but then a question popped up that kind of stopped me in my tracks.
"This is an interesting concept, but I gotta be honest," began the Redditor. "I'm an [expletive], and that's helped me more in my career than caring about people's emotions or anything like that."
OK. Fascinating start.
He continued (we'll assume it's a he):
In my industry, I focus on the work (really stressful medical clinical trials) and doing the best I can. Becoming an expert in my field is what matters to anyone I work with, because I can help companies save millions of dollars. I quit jobs if I'm not paid enough, negotiate for salaries more than twice as high as the industry average, and leave jobs if I get a better offer somewhere else. I'm great to work with, if I'm paid enough. After I leave a company, I often get a higher offer to come back.
Basically, the Redditor was describing himself as a brilliant jerk. He continued his argument by naming a number of famous and successful people that he claimed didn't have much emotional intelligence, including, yes, Steve Jobs.
He concluded with the question:
I guess my question is, why should I care about "emotional intelligence"? How will it be a better usage of my time than just continuing to be an expert and outsmarting/outwitting my peers?
The Redditor's query was a good one, but it's one built on a common misconception: that emotional intelligence is somehow inherently virtuous, that it's all about empathy and compassion and trying to help others.
But as I explained in my response, that's not true.
After thanking the Redditor for his honesty, I reminded him that emotional intelligence is the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions to reach a goal. Like what many people consider traditional intelligence, it can be used either in benevolent ways or for selfish reasons.
In fact, I'd argue the list of people the Redditor named have displayed high levels of EQ--just used in a way that's different from what most people think.
For example, consider Jobs. Between Apple, Pixar, and then Apple again, he was in charge of companies that made people feel. You can't do that without understanding a lot about how emotions work, and understanding how to use that knowledge to your advantage.
So, what about his reputation for being mean and manipulative?
Jobs's biographer, Walter Isaacson, had something interesting to say about this. Isaacson had a unique perspective, as he interviewed Jobs countless times over the course of two years, along with more than a hundred of Jobs's friends, colleagues, and family members.
"When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness," writes Isaacson. "Quite the contrary: He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will."
In other words, Jobs often got what he wanted because he knew how to use other people's emotions against them. This, too, is emotional intelligence, but it's what I like to call "the dark side" of EQ.
The same could be true of the Redditor. Maybe he already has a high EQ and is simply using it in a manipulative way. Or maybe, like some brilliant jerks, he simply operates the way he wants without any concern for the feelings and emotions of others.
But "continuing to be an expert and outsmarting/outwitting [your] peers" while ignoring the role of emotions will often lead to one of two things:
1. You'll eventually crash because you overestimate yourself
2. Someone with a high EQ will use your own emotions against you
There's also one more thing to think about.
While the Redditor posed his question in the context of the workplace, emotional intelligence has an even more powerful application in our personal lives. I often talk about how EQ helped me win over the girl of my dreams, how it's contributed to a happy marriage of 12 years, and how it helps me in raising my three children.
Most would see all of these as positive reasons to build emotional intelligence. But as the saying goes: With great power comes great responsibility.
Emotional intelligence is certainly a powerful construct. As you increase your own EQ, you'll be tempted to use it to manipulate others--including those you care about.
Perhaps Jobs learned this the hard way.
So, whether you're the brilliant jerk, or you're forced to work with one, remember this:
Emotional intelligence is only one piece of the puzzle. Unless it's guided by morals and ethics, it can be extremely dangerous--and can be used to deceive and manipulate.
But that's just one more reason that you need to develop your own emotional intelligence--to protect yourself, and continue to make emotions work for you, instead of against you.