On Friday, I received two emails - one from a reporter, the other from a friend - both asking the same question: “How could Steve Jobs create such a loyal following while being such an asshole most of his life?” They weren’t referring to the loyalty to Apple, to its products, or to its culture, but to Steve Jobs, the person. David and Susan, sorry for not getting back to you sooner, but here is my answer:
We have been conditioned to think of loyalty as a virtue. As some sort of selfless act of blind devotion we offer to one another. It’s a romantic idea, but not really the truth. Loyalty is a real human emotion, a selfish emotion, no different than love, or hate, or fear, that evolved in humans as a survival mechanism. A means of giving our brains a rest so that it didn’t have to be suspicious or protective of every relationship around us. When we knew who we could trust and who had our best interests at heart, we could be loyal to that person and let down our guard.
But loyalty evolved for reasons beyond mere trust. As creatures who possess an acute sense of self-awareness, we are constantly seeking fulfillment - physically, emotionally, intellectually, financially...you name it. So we also bind ourselves to those you can provide that fulfillment. Those who help make our lives about something more than survival. It think that is what Steve Jobs offered to his “followers.” A fulfillment that all of his screaming, berating, insulting and castigating couldn’t deter.
Like all of us, Steve Jobs was a flawed human being who spent his life fighting his own demons. But to so many of those who worked with him and for him, he offered an incredible sense of purpose. His vision and passion for “what could be” gave more meaning to the work of those engineers, programers, and designers than his personal wrath could ever take away.
In its own twisted way, SJ’s behavior also created an indelible sense of belonging between him and his co-workers. (At least those who chose to stick with him.) He was an unapologetic idealist who scrutinized everything from the font type used on contracts to the screen backgrounds of his keynote presentations. In a now famous story, Jobs once called the head of mobile applications at Google on a Sunday morning to tell him that he wasn’t happy with the way Google’s logo looked on the iPhone. “The yellow in the second ‘o‘ wasn’t quite the right shade.” That was the purist in Steve Jobs. He demanded perfection and abhorred mediocrity. Especially in his employees.
Imagine what it must have meant to be “chosen” to work for Steve Jobs. A guy who had no problem discarding anything and everything he believed fell short of his own lofty standards and expectations. Peel back the abrasive behavior and obnoxious antics and realize what those actions were saying to his employees every day. “You are here because you are the best there is and the only ones good enough for my perfect world.”
Now who wouldn’t be loyal to a boss who thought that?