Being Quirky May Lead To Success…But Success Is NOT Defined By Quirkiness: Reflection on Steve Jobs’s legacy

“Quirky” might imply, or be a substitute for, “obnoxious,” “arrogant,” “insensitive,” “thoughtful,” “visionary” or “genius.”  The adjective can be uplifting or pejorative; success is not likely to be defined by one characteristic, however strong it may be.  The stories associated with Steve Jobs’s management style, principles and philosophy certainly can provide volumes for management students for years to come.  After his recent passing, many of these stories resurfaced:  He could be short with colleagues; at times, he’d mercilessly shred someone’s ideas; he micromanaged; he made mistakes; he could be arrogant, and on and on.  And he had awesomely uncanny visions which over the years broke ground in computer technology, and in marketing strategy…again, and again, and again.

promising sign?

Every so often, someone like Jobs renders management theories, models, principles, or lessons weak, useless, or pointless.  That’s fine; keep some of us who study organizations in the humble lane longer.  But most of these mavericks are exceptions rather than the norm. (And by the way, one does not ‘aim to be’ a maverick, nor does one talk about oneself as ‘being a’ maverick!) Does that mean we cannot draw lessons from them?  Of course, we can, with caution!  If we don’t have the substance with which to make music like Mozart, mimicking his “arrogant” posturing is mere rudeness that wouldn’t make a shred of musical difference.  If we don’t have the innate ability to think outside of the box, like Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, ignoring all the bureaucratic reports on the Challenger disaster or bypassing interviewing management in NASA in the investigation of the Challenger disaster would merely be foolish.  But, owing to the key difference between being a genius and being merely rude, after Feynman famously demonstrated how the O-ring’s plasticity was compromised in freezing temperature, we thought, “of course!”  Steve Jobs was in that category of genius who not only asserted that he knew what he was doing, when his vision became reality we said, “but of course.”

Do we as the collective let geniuses get away with incivility?  We can preach that we shouldn’t, but in general, we often give perceived “stars” wide latitude.  If their ideas turn out to be right, we forgive them, but if wrong, then, we complain.

There are at least four aspects about Jobs’s approach that struck me as laudable:

  1. He thought globally.  He always envisioned computer technology that would be friendly for everyone, especially in education.  He wanted to make Apples available to every student.  Yet,
  2. he would not sacrifice the quality and aesthetics of the products.  So, none of the Apple products is moderately priced. It is not like Ford wanting every American to own an affordable car.  When the product is good, there will be buyers.
  3. He owned up his mistakes.  He might argue with colleagues about ideas, and he might throw his weight for his own ideas, but if others could present him a better one and prove his to be inferior, he would be the first to embrace the better ideas.  This is one major characteristic I do admire in him.  Few managers would ever admit making mistakes, especially openly.  Sometimes, when big corporations apologize, they rarely exhibit authenticity.
  4. This is the most important point:  He built PRODUCTS.  When Silicon Valley was white hot, many business owners would just build up their businesses to sell in order to make a profit.  Jobs’ response was (paraphrasing), “that’s sad, what did they produce?”  I think the financial market is the antithesis of making things.  They have made no contributions, none, to our understanding of how the world works.  Well, maybe they did, about the ugly side of human greed and stupidity.  But that’s not much of a contribution.  Apple products may not be breakthroughs like the telephone, telescope, automobile, airplane, etc., but the gestalt of “Apple” will make a chapter in the history. 

I think geniuses not only help us humans advance in our knowledge and creativity, they also highlight the innate paradoxes of human nature.  So, yes, I also give them wide latitude because they help me appreciate life and beauty.  That’s a big deal to me.  Keep searching for that beauty!

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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