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steve jobs and the no @$$hole rule

Bob Sutton teaches us that @$$holes are a bad thing. They take up our time, they decrease our productivity. But what do we make of the Steve Jobs biography? According to one headline, it shows that Jobs was a “jerk and a genius.” What gives? Was Sutton wrong?

Here’s my take. Yes, in general, jerks are a bad thing. Research and personal experience show that they are. For every mean boss who succeeds, there’s a legion that just make their co-workers miserable and unproductive. Early in his career, Jobs was the paragon of the jerk who pulled everyone down with him. One of the reasons he was run out from Apple was that he constantly fought with other factions within Apple.

So how did Jobs break out of this trap? A few ways. First, he became better at his job over time. Even though there were some problem products later in his career, nothing compared to the bomb that was the Lisa computer. It’s easier to command respect and compliance when your batting average goes up, way up. The benefits of working with Jobs now outweighed his negatives.

Second, Jobs restructured the organization and eliminated people who didn’t buy into his personal style.  Early in his career, he had to work with people who were older than him and knew him before he became famous. They might not always buy into the “reality distortion field.” Later, Apple leaders were mainly people groomed by him. All the old leadership had retired or were fired upon Jobs’ return.

Third, Jobs was fairly interactive. Yes, he was a bit of an @$$hole, but the biography shows many cases of where he built strong bonds with people.  A lot of @$$holes never balance the aggression with positive reinforcement.

Bottom line: I still believe in Sutton’s rule, but Jobs was exceptional. Almost no one had his deep knowledge of the high tech business or such an acute sense of style and design. Few can build an organization tailored to their personality. Most @$$holes will never be in Jobs’ league and will merely make our lives miserable. Long live the no @$$hole rule!

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Written by fabiorojas

October 31, 2011 at 12:05 am

7 Responses

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  1. You can say “asshole.” Cloaking it with “@$$hole” and “@&&hole” is just really annoying.

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    you can say "asshole"

    October 31, 2011 at 12:41 am

  2. I see jerk and asshole as orthogonal concepts: An asshole is someone using power to run someone else down on purpose. A jerk is someone who changes direction without knowing how it affects others. An asshole who is clear where he’s going is tolerable and a good leader. A nice jerk is tolerable too. But one who is a jerk and an asshole is to be loathed.

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    Rick Thomas

    October 31, 2011 at 1:35 am

  3. @you can say @$$hole: Sorry, I grew up in a devout Catholic family. It would be naughty for me to say it the right way.

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    fabiorojas

    October 31, 2011 at 2:19 am

  4. That brings up the sociology of swearing, cursing, and euphemisms. Holy Cow… Gee Whiz … And who was “Jiminy Cricket”? By Gemini! Oh, God bless America, what is going on here? … Say it as you wish, is it not true, Professor, that according to Catholic doctrine what counts is not the action, but your motive?

    Be that as is it may, what will we say when Bill Gates passes away? Is it not best to say it now? I read The Journey is the Reward and Odyssey, along with other works in the same years as the computer revolution was unfolding. We saw The Pirates of Silicon Valley when it came out. Unless you lived with the man, or worked closely with him for years, how could you claim to know him from books, articles, and a docufictionary? Do we know him better than Abraham Lincoln or Lady Ada Lovelace? Time and distance being what they are to history, we might understand Steve Jobs less well.

    Even simple people are complicated. We all have moods, good days and bad. The question is not “How to evaluate Steve Jobs?” but “Why do we evaluate others at all?” If being around someone else makes you feel good or bad, it ends there with you … unless you want to take it to an analyst’s couch.

    Perhaps Mona Simpson’s “A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs” in the New York Times said about as much as needs to be recorded.

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    Michael Marotta

    October 31, 2011 at 3:29 pm

  5. Fabio: start warming up with “shit” routines every day.

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    Guillermo

    October 31, 2011 at 4:52 pm

  6. Fabio,

    Jobs was a mighty complicated person. I would point out that in The No Asshole Rule I did use him as the star of the chapter on :The Virtues of Assholes” where I talked about how how domination and power displays can be effective for claiming status, especially when there is a zero sum game or people operate under the assumption that everyone else is an asshole. I also pointed out that assholes who are top performers usually get fired faster when they stumble because their enemies are ready to pounce — this is what happened to Jobs in his first round at Apple. I also offered tips for the effective asshole, many of which Jobs used well as knowing how to use it strategically and having a toxic handler to clean up your mess (that was Ray Lane’s old job for Larry Ellison). In the end, however, I worry that the message people will take from Job;s life is that he got ahead because he was an asshole more often than most leaders. I would argue that he succeeded despite rather than because of this tendency, and that his greatest success came after he learned to tone it down and to rely more on the talents of others. There are plenty of people who have been enormously successful — ED Catmull at Pixar and AG Lafley at P&G — and are civilized people, I think they are much better role models than Jobs, despite all the hero worship.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post

    Bob SUtton

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    Bob Sutton (@work_matters)

    October 31, 2011 at 8:44 pm

  7. […] steve jobs and the no @$$hole rule – Bottom line: I still believe in Sutton’s rule, but Jobs was exceptional. Almost no one had his deep knowledge of the high tech business or such an acute sense of style and design. Few can build an organization tailored to their personality. Most @$$holes will never be in Jobs’ league and will merely make our lives miserable. Long live the no @$$hole rule! […]

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