Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Soul of Steve Jobs

Soon after the death of Apple's co-founder, Steve Jobs, I read Walter Isaacson's newly released biography, Steve Jobs. Once started, I found it difficult to stop reading (on my iPad) about this complicated man, and I regretted reaching the last page.

Whether one liked or disliked Steve Jobs, he is certainly one of the most talked-about leaders of our time. In his 56-year life, he founded and ultimately led a business organization to a commanding position in the world of technology. He assembled and led teams that produced some of the most admired technological products of our time: Mac Books, iPods, iPhones, iPads. Whole industries came into being because of him.

But Steve Jobs also had many critics. "He mistreated people." "He was ruthless in his business dealings." "He was vindictive." "He lacked compassion." And that's just the light stuff.

As I read about Steve Jobs, I dared to imagine a conversation with him in his office at Apple. A fantasy, of course, but a trigger for some sober thought.”

We all know that Steve Jobs was not a professing Christian. While he respected Jesus, he walked away from Christianity at an early age—at least in its organized and doctrinal form.

So why write about him in a Christian journal? Answer: because his life yields valuable lessons, positive and negative, on the subject of leadership. It also highlights areas that Christian leaders can enlist to touch the souls of people like him.

Early Influences

The Steve Jobs biography reminded me of how many leaders are shaped by events in their earliest years (even days) of life.

Jobs, for example, was born to an unmarried couple who chose to give him up for adoption. The good news? The newborn child came to the home of a working class couple, Paul and Clara Jobs of San Francisco, who lavished great love and care on him.

Paul Jobs, Steve's adoptive father, was a Coast Guard veteran, a man of exceptional mechanical and carpentry skill. When Steve was old enough, father and son began to tinker with cars, build furniture, and repair things about the house. "I wasn't into fixing cars," Steve Jobs said years later, "but I was eager to hang out with my dad."

In their time together, the father planted a powerful work ethic in his son. All work, Steve Jobs learned, was to be marked with excellence. When father and son painted a fence together, for example, the boy learned that the unexposed side was to be treated with the same thoroughness as the visible side.

"(My father) loved doing things right," Jobs reflected. "He even cared about the look of the parts you couldn't see." Decades later this principle learned in boyhood would shape the development of Apple devices. Jobs always insisted that the inner parts of anything bearing the Apple name be as perfectly designed and built as the outer parts, even though a customer would never see them.
(Note: you never see a screw or latch that permits you to open up and tinker with an iPod or an iPad. Jobs didn't want you or me "screwing up" his stuff. A control freak? You betcha.)

But then there's the perceived rejection of his biological parents. That's the bad-news side of the story. What's it like to know that your mother put you into the arms of someone else and walked away? This appears to have haunted Jobs all his life and may partially explain his shortfalls in many human relationships.

When Jobs began school, his parents and teachers soon discovered that he was a "problem child." It showed in his rebelliousness, in his boredom with the curriculum, in his unwillingness to fit into ordinary classroom regimens. He resisted learning in the traditional cookie-cutter ways.

It's startling to realize that Steve Jobs might have ended up a social discard—a delinquent—had it not been for an observant teacher who suspected that she had an exceptional child in her classroom. Under her guidance Jobs quickly accelerated in his learning experiences. "I just wanted to learn and to please her," Jobs said, looking back on her efforts.

Unfortunately the same did not happen in his church experience. When Jobs was 13, he asked his pastor a simple (yet not so simple) question.

Isaacson writes: "In July 1968 Life magazine published a shocking cover showing a pair of starving children in Biafra. Jobs took it to Sunday school and confronted the church's pastor, 'If I raise my finger, will God know which one I'm going to raise even before I do it?'

"The pastor answers, 'Yes, God knows everything.”

Jobs then pulled out the Life cover and asked, 'Well, does God know about this and what's going to happen to those children?'

"'Steve, I know you don't understand, but yes, God knows about that.'"

The pastor's answer badly underestimated the young teen's intellect and left him unsatisfied. According to Isaacson, Jobs walked away from the church that day and never returned.

For the pastor, that brief exchange was likely incidental and forgettable. Yet it was a turning point that would point Steve Jobs toward eastern philosophy.

The story generates a prayer in me: "Lord, make me aware of the implications of any (any!) word I say to people during the course of the day. Who can know when a spoken word directs someone toward the right path … or the wrong one?"

So you have these primary sources of formation in this boy's life: a birth mother, a loving father, a caring teacher, and an imperceptive pastor. Discuss!


If one is into technology (and I confess an attraction), Isaacson's record of Steve Jobs college and twenty-something years becomes intriguing. During that time Jobs came alive to the world of electronics, drugs, literature, and a host of other experiences. But among the most important events of that period was his introduction to Stephen Wozniak, who would become his partner in the founding of Apple.

While other boys played ball, Jobs and Wozniak built their first computer in the garage of the Jobs's home. Theirs was a powerful synergy of skills: Wozniak's grasp of the inner workings of a computer and Jobs's instinct for its design and utility.

The birth of Apple Computer came in the years that followed, and the two men attracted a host of brilliant youngish people to join them in developing the company.

I'm most interested in the contrasts between the two men. Wozniak was shy, embarrassed by public recognition, obsessive about facts and truthfulness. Jobs, on the other hand, was brash, ambitious, and controlling.

Isaacson writes: "Wozniak would be the gentle wizard coming up with a neat invention that he would have been happy to just give away, and Jobs would figure out how to make it user-friendly, put it together in a package, market it, and make a few bucks."

The Wozniak-Jobs partnership will be the subject of more than one dissertation or book in years to come. It could make for a rich conversation today: how do partnerships begin, and how are they nurtured? And what's the nature of a relationship with God?


Years later Steve Jobs hit a kind of bottom. To simplify a very complex story: Jobs was a man with limited people skills. In his haste to fulfill his visions, he could be intimidating, obnoxious, intolerant, impatient, profane, and offensive.

As often happens, the people at Apple mostly adjusted to Steve Jobs's way because, in spite of his volatile personality, he caused highly talented and motivated people to achieve things beyond their own wildest expectations. If one was tough enough to accept the abuse involved in working for and with Steve Jobs, the success in terms of wealth, fame, and professional satisfaction was enormous.

But one day the board of Apple reached a point of intolerable frustration with Jobs. At the age of 30, Steve Jobs found himself out of a job. He once again experienced the echoes of rejection, abandonment—but this time at the age of 30. The man who'd often abandoned others was himself abandoned.

Those had to be moments of massive humiliation and self-searching. Was anything to be learned? While Jobs may have been able to identify his failures in executive leadership, I doubt if he ever looked inside himself to seek the root of the many faults and flaws that often made working with him an intolerable experience.

"The one question I'd truly love Steve to answer is 'Why are you sometimes so mean?'" one colleague told Isaacson. When Isaacson posed the question to Jobs, he said, "This is who I am, and you can't expect me to be someone I'm not." That was it. Case closed.

When Steve founded a second company (NeXT), the products it introduced to the market, while innovative, were not entirely profitable. Jobs's place in business might have been scuttled. He was just inches from spending the rest of his life as a nobody. But this period of failure in Steve Jobs's life counted for something. "The best thing ever to happen to Steve is when we fired him, told him to get lost," an Apple board member said.

Isaacson comments: "The theory, shared by many, is that the tough love made him wiser and more mature. But it's not that simple. At the company he founded after being ousted from Apple, Jobs was able to indulge all of his instincts, both good and bad. He was unbounded. The result was a series of spectacular products that were dazzling market flops. This was the true learning experience."

Sometime later the board of Apple, also facing great stress, invited Jobs back into the company. It's a convoluted, rather strange story, but the reinstatement turned out to be a new day for him and for Apple.

When appropriate, I like to ask leaders if there was ever a time when they felt truly broken, stripped of self-confidence, and finally willing to seriously listen to someone other than themselves? Often, they nod their heads. Yes, there was such a time, most say. And yes, they finally learned to listen.

One thinks of Joseph's days as a slave, Moses's years in the desert, Peter's hours weeping in a dark valley. Defining moments, those.

Did Steve Jobs have such a defining moment? Was he ever truly humbled? The jury, Isaacson might say, is hung on that one.


Those who worked around Steve Jobs spoke, and sometimes joked, about his reality distortion field, a term borrowed from the Star Trek TV series. Isaacson quotes long-term Jobs co-worker, Andy Hertzfeld, "(Jobs's) reality distortion field was a confounding mélange of a charismatic rhetorical style, indomitable will, and eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand" (italics mine).

In a few words, Hertzfeld was saying that Steve Jobs often tried to talk things into existence. Plainly put: Jobs could lie, make unkeepable promises, and reframe facts. He knew few limits in trying to get people to see things his way. He not only convinced others but also himself. You could say that the man often drank his own Kool-Aid.

"At the root of the reality distortion was Jobs's belief that the rules didn't apply to him," Isaacson writes. "Rebelliousness and willfulness were ingrained in his character. He had the sense that he was special, a chosen one, an enlightened one."

In the Steve Jobs world, the casualty rate in such a Darwinian atmosphere was great. But—and here is the conundrum—the work usually got done, the objectives were achieved, the products shipped. More often than not, people delivered the impossible that Jobs demanded. Call it a task-driven leadership. But it wasn't a place where people with values ascended. Only the toughest survived.

It's not difficult to see this pattern in a larger-than-life man like Steve Jobs and to harshly criticize it. What is more challenging is seeing that this same tendency lies latent in the hearts of most leaders—Christians included. A great goal, a strong passion, a consuming need: they are the stuff of self-justification when a leader comes to believe that something must be achieved for the noblest of reasons. It is the temptation of the preacher who, in seeking to persuade, enhances or diminishes the truth to make his point. It is the temptation of any organizational leader when additional money must be raised to keep the cause afloat.

How do we accomplish the task but do so with integrity? File that away for a future staff retreat. Or thoughtful conversation.

Useful and Beautiful

When I obtained my first iPad, it came in a box that reminded me of rich European chocolates. The iPad inside was wrapped in a clear film. When I lifted the iPad from the box, my first instinct was to hold it reverently in my hands as I might a piece of art. Everything about it—its appearance, its feel, its solidity—evoked a kind of awe.

When its screen lit up and I acquainted myself with the many things the iPad could do, I was dazzled—just as Steve Jobs had willed it to be.

My reaction to my iPad was first imagined in the Apple labs where Jobs and his people spent thousands of hours building something that was not only easy to use but marvelous to look at. It was art and technology brought together in one elegant package.

Apple products are known for their simplicity in both design and utility. Perhaps this was inspired by Jobs's attraction to Japanese Zen Buddhism. In this frame of reference, simplicity, wholeness, integrity, freedom from numbing complexity all reflect a sense of calmness.

For Steve Jobs great products were to be technologically exceptional, and they were to be equally beautiful. When I got my iPad, I found that I wanted to tell everyone about it. No one had to train me, motivate me, or threaten me with guilt. It was natural to rave about something that worked and was beautiful at the same time.

Like the gospel of Jesus.

I've worried over these words because I fear that some will conclude that I am betraying my own loyalty to Jesus when I acknowledge that something good can arise from an alternative philosophical orientation. But to pretend not to notice that Jobs may have found some of his inspiration from another source is to be dishonest.

I would rather ask if a genuine Christianity should not have provided a similar inspiration. Was not Jesus the epitome of simplicity, of beauty, of wholeness? Was not the intended result of his gospel in the life of the believer meant to be (forgive this ludicrous comparison) as impressive as an iPad 2?

(Note to those who choke on being compared to an iPad. Paul compared the flourishing Christian to a pot made of gold or silver. Alive today, he might have also resorted to using an iPad.)


When Steve Jobs discovered that he had cancer, typically he tried to manage his own healing process. There were some bad decisions that frustrated his doctors. But there were also good choices that apparently advanced the process of seeking a cure for cancer. But in the end, he lost this last battle and died.

"I am about fifty-fifty on believing in God," he told Isaacson not long before he died. "For most of my life, I've felt that there must be more to our existence than meets the eye …. I'd like to think that something survives after you die. It's strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your

consciousness endures. But on the other hand, perhaps it's like an on-off switch. Click! And you're gone. Maybe that's why I never like to put on-off switches on Apple devices."

Once in a commencement address at Stanford, Jobs told graduates that death may be life's greatest gift in that a true respect for death might force one to give his/her best in every waking day.

"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life," he said. "Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important."

As I read this biography of Jobs, I wanted to see how a man dealt with his own brokenness and defects. I wanted to see what the good and the bad looked like in organizational leadership. I wanted to learn what's possible when someone—whatever the reason—reaches for their notion of the best. Isaacson helped me to do that.

Author: Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary Denver and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence