The Productive Narcissism Of Steve Jobs

I read an article this week about email etiquette. Although, infuriatingly, I promptly misplaced the URL, and have been unable to find it anywhere in my Web history, the gist of it was that social smoothing in business emails is a total waste of time -- in fact, it can hold you back. Forget the “I hope you’re having a good day,” or the “Thanks for your reply.” Kind words are not only useless, the article postulated, they very quickly get seen as insincere and discounted if used all the time -- presumably the exact opposite of the intended effect. Instead of encouraging people to like us, we give them permission to walk all over us. People who get ahead are focused entirely on results; if we have to ruffle a few feathers along the way, so be it.

This also happens to be the week I read Malcolm Gladwell’s commentary on Steve Jobs, prompted by Walter Isaacson’s book: “Jobs, we learn, was a bully. ‘He had the uncanny capacity to know exactly what your weak point is, know what will make you feel small, to make you cringe,’ a friend of his tells Isaacson. Jobs gets his girlfriend pregnant, and then denies that the child is his. He parks in handicapped spaces. He screams at subordinates. He cries like a small child when he does not get his way. He gets stopped for driving a hundred miles an hour, honks angrily at the officer for taking too long to write up the ticket, and then resumes his journey at a hundred miles an hour. He sits in a restaurant and sends his food back three times. He arrives at his hotel suite in New York for press interviews and decides, at 10 P.M., that the piano needs to be repositioned, the strawberries are inadequate, and the flowers are all wrong: he wanted calla lilies. (When his public-relations assistant returns, at midnight, with the right flowers, he tells her that her suit is ‘disgusting.’)”



Of course, shocking behavior is no stranger to the C-Suite. In a 2005 Fast Company article titled “Is Your Boss a Psychopath?,” Alan Deutschman explores two archetypes of aggressive leadership: the psychopath and the narcissist. It’s gripping reading: Henry Ford, for example, “hired thugs to crush union organizers, deployed machine guns at his plants, and stockpiled tear gas. He cheated on his wife with his teenage personal assistant and then had the younger woman marry his chauffeur as a cover.”

Our instinctive reaction to this kind of behavior -- well, my instinctive reaction, anyway -- is aversion. Yet Ford was compelling enough to shape the lives not only of his own generation, but of generations to follow. Jobs’ dissatisfaction with the world around him resulted directly in his extraordinary efforts to make it better: cleaner, prettier, more elegant.

Deutschman cites Michael Maccoby, the author of “The Productive Narcissist,” in explaining how Jobs escapes being a psychopath: “When… Steve Jobs calls someone a bozo, [he’s] not concerned about people's feelings. [Productive narcissists] see other people as a means toward their ends. But they do have a sense of changing the world -- in their eyes, improving the world. They build their own view of what the world should be and get others recruited to their vision. Psychopaths, in contrast, are only interested in self."

But does the end justify the means? Is the only way to be a visionary to be horrible to the people around you? The flawed thinking -- the magical thinking espoused in the article urging us to ignore email etiquette -- goes like this:

A. Jobs and Ford were tyrants.
B. Jobs and Ford changed the world.
C. Therefore, in order to change the world, you must be a tyrant.

The danger in this kind of analysis stems from the confusion between causation and correlation. Are they world-changers because they’re tyrants, or is being a tyrant simply a reflection of a character that looks at the world and sees its current state as unacceptable? I imagine in someone like Jobs there would have existed an extraordinary tension between the world as it is and the world as he imagined it, a massive dissatisfaction with the utter imperfection of our daily lives, and an unbearable need to bring his environment in line with his vision of how things could be.

Jobs and Ford were tyrants because they were visionary, because of their internal dissonance between reality and possibility. If you do not suffer from this dissonance, no amount of bad behavior towards your colleagues will turn you into a visionary. And I believe it’s entirely possible to be a visionary and to be kind.

And that is the kind of leadership to which we can all aspire.

2 comments about "The Productive Narcissism Of Steve Jobs ".
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  1. Bob Batchelor from Cultural Historian and Writer, November 11, 2011 at 11:29 a.m.

    I agree that one's goal when leading should be both visionary and kind. The work world is full of too many "leaders" that equate CYA management and/or bullying with strong leadership. And, frankly, many of those types of people are rewarded. I've never met a person yet who couldn't go on and on with stories (or many different stories) about an "as*hole boss."

    A challenge, historically, though is in using Jobs and Ford as the models here. Ford, despite his shortcomings as a person/boss, built a system that revolutionized business. For all the hagiography about Jobs, the iPod, iPad, etc., can hardly be thought about the same way. Perhaps Jobs would have done something more important with his power and creativity had he lived a longer life, but I don't see how we hail him for making consumer goods that exist merely to get people to purchase them.

    The root of evil in Jobs' case is narcissism and money. He felt entitled to act the way he did b/c he was too big for anyone to stand up to him. Perhaps history will some day view him as the world's worst boss than some kind of creative genius for creating consumer goods that have no societal value.

  2. Shawn Riegsecker from Centro, LLC, November 13, 2011 at 1:03 a.m.

    Awesome column Kaila.

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