Why Jobs and Zuckerberg Are Bad Role Models, Luck is Understated in Success Stories, and “Nice Guy” Business Leaders Are Ascendant

Facebook filed to go public last Wednesday, and we are all awash in hagiographies to Zuckerberg, stories of the determined, bright young Harvard drop out who, through force of will, has revolutionized the internet and human relations. Like all invention myths, these stories leave out both the inevitability of the evolution of a facebook-like platform, and the unoriginality of the idea at the time of Facebook’s launch.

This meme is not new – we all know that invention is usually evolutionary, more like the aleatory, methodical process of natural selection than the “Eureka!” shouting epiphany of intelligent design (Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From is insightful on this point). We exaggerate the impact of individual geniuses, without whom we like to think the world would be profoundly different, for two reasons, as far as I can tell: Because it makes for better stories, and because we want to elevate human agency, we want to believe in our individual power to bend the world with the force of our will.

We are not wrong, it’s an extraordinary time for innovation, and individuals can have profound impact. But at the same time I think wildly successful people have an obligation to say: “Yes I worked my tail off, and no, I am no dummy, but it’s also true that I got really really lucky.”

I have gotten lucky, and I am working hard to get luckier still.  Clearly Success = some combination of hard work, intelligence (more the ability to learn incrementally from experience than some kind of mystical genius) and luck. The first two are requirements for admission, and you have to keep at it until you find the third. Older and wiser people like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are more likely to acknowledge the role of luck in their success – both of then have spoken about it eloquently — and Malcolm Gladwell did a good job of describing the luck factor in Outliers. Bo Peabody came clean in his thoughtful book, Lucky or Smart. But it remains wildly under-recognized, in my opinion.

Why does this matter? It matters because if people think innovation happens because of the actions of Isolated Geniuses, they draw the wrong conclusions about their own potential and how innovation happens. It’s easy to draw the wrong lessons from hyperbolized success stories. You could conclude, for instance, that when brought into a new social media startup, you should stall, rip off the idea, and go it alone (Zuckerberg). Or that true visionaries scream at developers and designers, tell them their products are shit, and storm out of the room (Jobs). Needless to say there is much that we can learn from Jobs and Zuckerberg, two brilliant innovators — some if it is useful and broadly applicable, the rest historically specific and potentially misleading.

I am about half way through the Jobs biography (its been temporarily displaced by Thinking Fast and Slow due to my AMPs syndrome), and I think Isaacson deserves enormous credit for keeping the extraordinary story of Steve Jobs tethered to the ground. If there ever were a case that individuals can be overpowering forces on history, lead-weighted billiard balls that profoundly alter the picture, Jobs is right up there with Einstein and Hitler among the strongest cases. He achieved extraordinary success not once but thrice with Apple 1.0, Pixar, and Apple 2.0, and he was a wildly original rogue force.

The problem, however, with Jobs as an example, is that what has worked for Apple is very nearly the inverse of what works more broadly online. The idea of locking people in sealed chambers for years at a time to develop products incompatible with other standards, without any feedback from users, is pretty much the antithesis of the best way to navigate the emergent connected, social-media-accelerated world, in my opinion.

My guess is that if you were to plop Steve Jobs in various places and times in history – the precisely same Steve Jobs with his peculiar psychological blend of brilliance, iconoclasm, and a borderline sado-masochistic stinginess with warmth and affirmation (arbuably a result of his fraught relationship with having been put up for adoption, according to many of his intimates) – in 9 out of 10 cases he would not have been a business success. He would have been, as Steve himself said, a broke poet in Paris (a career path I think of warmly, by the way). It’s not easy to be successful in business if you are uncollaborative, egotistical, disinclined to give others credit, and very nearly completely blind to the obstacles. Indeed, you are highly likely to fail with that disposition, it’s a low probability approach, but if you succeed, you have a shot at doing so on a large scale, in a memorable way. And thank goodness Steve Jobs did so — as many of you know, I am among the faithful when it comes to Apple products, and believe a forceful personality was necessary in this case to elevate design in the anarchic world of technology.This is what’s missing from so many of the success stories that surround us, in vivid Technicolor: data on probability. It’s a classic case of availability bias, and in the Gladwellian era of business journalism, we are ever more focused on celebration of individual stories, often selecting for the anomalous.

My personal reality distortion field is a case of optimism, and I believe there is mounting evidence that the business environment is changing in ways that increasingly favor the kind, generous business leader.  “Nice guy” business leaders still fire people who don’t perform and make hard decisions, but they consider it their job to create warm supportive environments with opportunities for growth. The Barry Diller approach, which Steve Jobs was also susceptible to, is going the way of the hammered dulcimer. There are three reasons for this:

1)   The importance of attracting talent – the best people are less and less willing to deal with hot-headed leaders, because every year it’s getting easier to start companies or change jobs if you have desirable skills.

2)   Customers are more and more informed, and they like supporting companies that are forces for good.  Obnoxious leaders breed obnoxious companies, and the cost of alienating even a very small subset of the population has gotten lot higher.

3)   Industries are increasingly non-zero sum, and consequently businesses with more collaborative cultures outcompete those with less collaborative ones. This is category dependent, of course – Amazon’s winner-take-all approach may be well adapted to the low margin e-commerce environment.

All in, I believe that the highest probability paths to success and happiness — two conditions, it should be noted, that are often uncorrelated – are not well exemplified by Jobs or Zuckerberg. Ruthlessness born of misanthropy or alienation has propelled business leaders for generations in zero sum game industries, but it’s increasingly ill-adapted to the modern world, and from a happiness perspective, you don’t want to be that guy. This was one of the more surprising take aways from the Jobs biography – he seems remarkably discontent, all things considered. He treated us customers a lot better than he did the people immediately around him, and the latter is what sets the table for life satisfaction.

As Steven Covey said years ago, helping others succeed may not always be the fastest way to succeed, but it never fails.  It’s not the Jobsian way, but if you only have one life to live it’s the higher probability path.

4 thoughts on “Why Jobs and Zuckerberg Are Bad Role Models, Luck is Understated in Success Stories, and “Nice Guy” Business Leaders Are Ascendant

  1. I always find you thought-provoking. Quite hard for me to imagine Steve Jobs as a failure in another era — he succeeded in several very different eras, and he restarted a few times as well.
    I think history tells us that people mostly want to be led/sold to by a winner; and if you keep winning and creating value for your followers/customers – people will overlook everything else. When you stop winning–then people start to look at how you treated them — but I think in general folks give far too much credence to what corporate culture or personality “wins.”
    If you had the right mixture of charisma, drive, calculation, ambition, and callousness — I think you were likely to succeed in almost every historical era. Napoleon bragged that he could train men to sacrifice their lives for a scrap of ribbon – and I could see French Steve Jobs arguing the same. I don’t see him content to be a poet (for long).
    Collaborative approaches are definitely in vogue in the corporate world, academia, and politics — Bur when it comes to entrepreneurship, where you can now create a 80 billion dollar company in 7 years — I see plenty of wonderful, collaborative men and women who are successful founders and I also see plenty of jerks. What do the rich ones all have in common? They kept winning.

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  2. Andrew — I completely agree that winners keep on winning, and that is partly because people under value the luck quotient in winning. As a consequence, people who have a much easier time succeeding the next time, so the inevitability of their success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Job’s success with Pixar was not easy, but it probably would not have happened at all without all the relationships and financial and repetitional advantages he had after starting Apple. A Steve Jobs in another era would not have this advantage.

    I would not have this opinion if I had not read the Jobs bio (the first half anyway) — there are a lot of immature jerks in the world of business, but he is on another level. Had he not experienced extraordinarily good historical timing he would have had to either compromise his world view, like most people, or become a starving poet in Paris, his plan b. More compromise would have made him more functional and it would have removed some of his magic.

    People love to say how amazing it is that Zuckerberg never sold. That’s not because he was unusually confident, it’s because he was young. Young people always think their company will grow to be 1,000 times larger, it’s endemic to the state of being young. People who happen on success early have a lot of behaviors they would have otherwise had to unlearn had they not been lucky, behaviors that make them bolder and more narcissistic, but sometimes that’s the right combination. — r

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  3. I completely agree with your innovation model & that we over-emphasize the individual over the confluence of synergistic factors.
    But I’m not as sure about the nice-guy hypothesis. Seems to me a nice-guy corporate culture is a luxury afforded by over-achieving companies (eg, Google) and perhaps a kind of motivation in smaller, personality-driven cultures (Tina Brown vs. David Remnick). Success will always attract talent, even if the bosses are assholes, seems to me.

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  4. I agree that success will always attract talent, and assholes will be successful for many years to come. I also believe that there is a human instinct to follow strong leaders (even when they are numbskulls, much to the dismay of Democrats) and that a certain amount of brusk, severe, and even ruthless behavior from leaders can exert an attractive force. This creates a paradox Obama and others have wrestled with, which is that the smartest leadership process is deliberative, but the most effective communication style is resolute.

    All that said, my point above is that there is an incremental cultural movement away from tolerance of asshole leaders in business. And of the three reasons for this listed above, I think the most important is the increasing mobility of talent. When Steve Jobs and Wozniak started Apple in 1976, developers didn’t have nearly as many options as they have today. Would developers today tolerate the same verbal abuse, or would they walk out and start a rival company? Sure, developers today are willing to tolerate a Steve Jobs because he is associated with some of the most visionary products in the history of the world, but that wasn’t the case in 1976, and a Jobs / Diller type starting a new business today will have a harder time getting away with it.

    Here’s a second relevant point: I think asshole leaders — not stern leaders, mind you, but gratuitously obnoxious leaders like Jobs and Diller — are much less common than most people think. The reason for this is that the media loves them, we all love them on some level. What’s appealing about the Jobs /Diller stories that circulate, is that on some level everyone wants to be them, for a day — we want to walk into a room and tell everyone their work is shit and insist that our vision is perfect and everyone else is deluded.

    When you look systematically at the leadership styles that work statistically, you get results like those Jim Collins and his research team presented in the book Good To Great. When you remove the media storytelling and look at the data, the most successful leaders are what they called Level 5 leaders — these CEOs were humble, consistently understated their contributions and emphasized the contributions of the team, and so on. The level 5 executive “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.” These guys are not always media darlings, they are not cinematic, but statistically over time (if you buy Collins’s research) they outperform the Dillers.

    Needless to say I am not unbiased, here — I have a dog in this hunt, on a personal level. My natural interpersonal style is not Diller-like, so I have read what I can find on the subject and have a preference for evidence that supports this view. I have become less polite and more direct in business in the last decade, because I think it’s necessary, but I have also come to believe that history is moving in this direction.

    The long view — and I will stop after this last point — is presented beautifully in one of my favorite books, Non Zero by Robert Wright — a book Bill Clinton apparently gave to his cabinet to read. The book makes the case that the long view is that humans are becoming a more cooperative, domesticated (less violent, testosterone-y) species, and groups of humans who are more cooperative have outcompeted groups who are less cooperative over time. It’s a slow process but I do believe the internet is a force that supports this movement.

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