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Steve Jobs didn't care if people thought he was an asshole. Why should we?

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A new biography is intent on taking the sting out of the prickly genius

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In the final chapter of the new biography Becoming Steve Jobs, authors Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli recount a time when the legendary Apple founder had to cancel an important meeting. Jobs confessed he was grappling with illness, but hadn't revealed it publicly yet. So he decided to give a perfectly logical excuse: "With a mordant giggle, he said, ‘Just tell them I'm being an asshole. That's what they'll probably be thinking anyway, so why not just say it.’"

"Just tell them I'm being an asshole."

It's a wonderful moment, because despite his dire condition, Jobs had a sense of humor about himself, and about the way people see him. His biographers (who take on Schlender's first-person point of view) weren't quite so brave. "I was dumbfounded...thinking that none of them would buy it for a minute...He could be a jerk, but he wasn't an asshole."

So which one was it: a jerk or an asshole? In the battle to define Jobs' legacy, I would argue it's a distinction without a difference, one the book trips over repeatedly as it seeks to reframe our understanding of tech’s most iconic CEO by softening his notoriously sharp edges.

A good boss doesn't hold back

This new biography has been praised by Apple executives like Jony Ive and Eddy Cue as the version that finally gets it right. In his quotes, Ive attempts to parse the same distinction between asshole and jerk, between someone who is cruel for the right reasons and someone who is nice for the wrong ones. "The reason you sugarcoat things is that you don't want anyone to think you're an asshole. So that's vanity," Ive says. When he was feeling hurt by Jobs' rough criticisms, Ive would remind himself that a boss who hides their true feeling behind kindness "might not really even be all that concerned about the other person's feelings. He just doesn't want to appear to be a jerk."

Time and again the book argues that it's foolish to try and simplify Jobs down to good or evil. "It's possible to understand the separate parts of Steve's personality well enough to go deeper than simply characterizing him as wholly good, bad, or binary." And yet the author wants readers to believe that in the case of his glib response to working conditions at Foxconn, secret deals to prevent hiring between top tech companies, and backdated stock options to himself, "the perceived moral transgressions were likely overstated, or failed to take into account all the circumstances."

In Jobs, employees found a common enemy to unite them

The biography's central mission seems to be downplaying or rationalizing the harsh side of Jobs' personality, but in doing so it fails to recognize why they were so important. Because the truth is that his flaws were also the sources of Jobs' unique ability. The book recounts how he would call up employees in the middle of the night or on Christmas morning and scream at them. But if they fought back, he would sometimes change his tune or apologize.

The authors nail exactly how this dynamic worked. "Steve had assembled a group that was strong enough to deal with who he was and autonomous enough to compensate for his weaknesses. They developed their own tactics for managing him." Navigating his aggression bonded them together. "It was like we had a common enemy," said Apple executive Jonathan Rubenstein.

"Glorify or vilify them. The one thing you can't do is ignore them."

And that is the heart of the matter. Yes, Jobs matured over time into a more capable leader. Yes, he could be friendly and selfless at times. But there would have been no second coming at Apple without the abrasive, egotistical, perfectionism of its two-time CEO. Instead of arguing about whether or not Jobs was an asshole, or what kind of asshole he was, we should admit, as he and his co-workers did, that it was simply part of who he was, and a big part of what made him great. Jobs fits the mold of the protagonist from Apple's Think Different campaign, "You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. The one thing you can't do is ignore them."

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