In an article entitled, “The Right Kind of Tyrant”, Rob Long had this to say about Steve Jobs:
“When Cupertino quaked under Tyrant Steve, no one needed to worry about the culture of the place. The culture was simple to understand: fear and unforgiving standards. It wasn’t an easy place to work, but that was part of the appeal: Apple’s engineers and designers didn’t love coming to work despite Steve’s insane temper and unpredictable rants, they loved coming to work because of those things. Because they knew Steve was trying to do great things, trying to revolutionize an entire market, trying to put incredible technology into a beautiful package and into the hands of ordinary people.
And that’s impossible to do without being ‘demanding.’”
I think this is about right with regard to Steve Jobs, but it got me thinking about ‘the wrong kind of tyrant’ and what precisely the difference between the two is. The reason I pose this question is that in my working life I have occasionally encountered bad bosses. And if you haven’t been self-employed for your entire working life, you too have worked in hierarchical organizations where bad tyrants outnumber the good kind by a lopsided margin.
So what is the difference between the two? As Rob Long points out, it is not good manners. Chair throwing fits, apoplectic rants, firing people on the spot in elevators – it sounds like the wrong kind of tyrants I have worked for could have taught Steve a thing or two about acceptable behaviour.
No, I believe the difference is purpose. Steve Jobs pushed people to come up with better products, to serve Apple better, to strive for excellence; the wrong kind of tyrant has entirely different goals, basically himself. He wants people to suck up to him, to agree with his BS, to help him climb the corporate ladder and to slavishly carry out his nonsense schemes obediently to the letter even though anybody with an IQ greater than a monkey knows they are stupid plans fated to fail (“that’s not the right attitude for a team player, now is it?”). Their assignments are soul-destroying, not because they involve abuse, but because their intended goals are ignoble and everybody knows it. The abusive manager may think he can bamboozle his people with his bafflegab but if he believes that (and he usually does), he is fooling himself. His employees can sense when they are being misled; they can smell it. And those workers, who are too dull-witted to figure it out themselves, will have it all helpfully spelled out for them by those who have.
This is a point that trade union leaders never seem to comprehend: regardless of what they may say at union meetings, people really do want to work hard - but only for a worthwhile goal. People desire this because our daily work is what provides most of us with our main purpose in life (outside of our family life). The more noble our endeavors, the more satisfied we are. Helping a puffed-up buffoon get a promotion is not a worthy goal for anybody but a craven lackey. But working towards a productive end is profoundly satisfying. And a leader who demands excellence from us will be respected and admired - even if he is abusive – because, by pushing us, he is helping us have a richer and more meaningful life.
That’s why good tyrants like Steve Jobs are remembered with fondness and respect, while bad tyrants ignominiously fade away into dust.
Steve Jobs, rest in peace.