December 02, 2011, 2:23 PM — Former Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was famous for warning that when companies hire too many "B-level" employees, they risk a "bozo explosion" -- that is, a dilution of quality brought on by having too many mediocre workers.
Now, in the wake of Walter Isaacson's hugely successful biography of Jobs, who died on Oct. 5 after a long struggle with cancer, The Atlantic contributor Tom McNichol worries that depictions of the hugely successful Jobs as an abusive, world-class assh*le will trigger a jerk explosion in the corporate world.
Of course, there is no shortage of jerks -- narcissists, bullies, sociopaths, liars, manipulators -- in the corridors of corporate power. But in his article, "Be a Jerk: The Worst Business Lesson From the Steve Jobs Biography," McNichol raises some legitimate concerns about the lessons being learned from Isaacson's portrayal of Jobs:
Isaacson's ... biography of Jobs offers a revealing look at what the author has called "good Steve" and "bad Steve." Good Steve was brilliant, charismatic, a champion for excellence, an alchemist who turned a moribund computer company into gold. Bad Steve was petulant, rude, spiteful, and controlling, a man who thought nothing of publicly humiliating employees, hogging the credit for work he hadn't done, throwing tantrums when he didn't get his way, or parking his Mercedes in handicapped spots. ...
[H]umans are full of qualities that are in no way integral to their functioning in the world. Some aspects of personality have little or no bearing on whether a person performs well, and not a few people succeed in spite of their darker qualities. You can be a genius and an assh*le, but the two aren't necessarily causally linked. ...
But such subtleties may be lost on CEOs, middle managers and wannabe masters of the universe who are currently devouring the Steve Jobs biography and thinking to themselves: "See! Steve Jobs was an assh*le and he was one of the most successful businessmen on the planet. Maybe if I become an even bigger assh*le I'll be successful like Steve."
It sounds like incredibly flawed thinking to many of us, but to people with a tendency toward being abusive, it's almost like a green light to let their obnoxious freak flag fly.
Not that such lessons aren't already out there. We live in world where beliefs such as "only the strong survive" and "it's better to be feared than respected" drive plenty of behavior. But those are still just fuzzy phrases to many people.