Lessons from Steve Jobs’ Biography: HCP or Collaborative Leader?

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.    


“Plays well with others,” would not be an expression that applied to Steve Jobs at any age. Yet he was the co-founder and CEO of Apple Computers, which has become the world’s most valuable company today. He was the driving force behind the world’s first widely successful personal computer in the 1980’s (the Macintosh), as well as the iMac, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone and the iPad. And don’t forget that he was also the CEO of Pixar, the computer animation company that brought us Toy Story and many other great cartoon feature films, saving Disney and becoming its largest shareholder in the process.

In his best-selling biography, Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson describes many of his unique qualities. But he also describes a man who was a real jerk – someone who might fit all the characteristics of a “high conflict person” (an HCP): an unchanging pattern of blaming others, all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behavior. Since I have been studying the destructive relationship behavior of HCPs for the past decade or so, and looking at methods for managing them, I was very interested to read his biography. Of course, I waited until I owned an iPad, and read it on that!


I had three questions that I hoped his biography would answer which have implications for anyone in business, in any workgroup and conflict resolution professionals. I think it addressed these questions well 

1.    What made Steve Jobs so extraordinarily successful?

2.    Was his difficult personality necessary for his success?

3.    How did the people around him manage his difficult personality?


What Made Him Extraordinarily Successful?

At the core of his success was a brilliant sense of design. He was unique in how he could take complex technological mechanisms and design them to be incredibly simple and fun for anyone to use.

As a child, he learned from his adopted father (he was given up at birth by his young unmarried mother) all about the importance of good design with automobiles. He was allowed to take things apart and learn how things worked. He grew up in Silicon Valley outside of San Francisco, learning all about electronics from Hewlett-Packard and other tech companies. By the time he was in high school, he was part of a group of electronics geeks (they called themselves “hackers” which started out as a good term), who gathered to exchange ideas about the rapidly advancing potential of electronic breakthroughs.

But he also became a rebel. He avoided going to college in this tech environment, such as at a low-cost state school like Berkeley, where his buddy Steve Wozniak was, or at Stanford where he probably could have gotten a scholarship. Instead, he wanted something “more artistic and interesting.” He went to a small liberal arts college (Reed, in Oregon), then become a college drop-out and a hippie who lived at an apple orchard commune. He “dropped acid” (LSD) several times, which he described years later as one of the most important and influential experiences in his life. He wrote poetry, played the guitar and listened to all kinds of music, from Bach to the Beatles. He developed a strong interest in the humanities.


Lesson #1: Integrate tech with humanity. It was this combination of high-tech and the humanities that he attributes to Apple’s success. Looking back on his life soon before his death in 2011, he told his biographer the following:

The reason Apple resonates with people is that there’s a deep current of humanity in our innovation. I think great artists and great engineers are similar, in that they both have a desire to express themselves. In fact, some of the best people working on the original Mac were poets and musicians on the side…. Great artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were also great at science.


Lesson #2: Simplify what you produce. In his effort to integrate science and the humanities, he became a perfectionist intensely dedicated to simplicity. When he partnered with Steve Wozniak to form Apple Computers, it was “Woz” who developed the breakthrough technology and Jobs who fought for the design and the deals that would bring it (the Macintosh) to the mass market and make it appealing. (Woz would have been just as happy to give away his tech secrets – but Jobs made them wildly profitable.)

Over the years, Jobs fought against on-off buttons, square corners, and disc trays that cluttered up their products. He fought for colors, playfulness (like the carry handle on top of the iMac that brand new computer owners found appealing), faster start-up times and glass that could cover the whole front of the device to make it more appealing.


Lesson #3: Control your product’s design from end-to-end: He also fought for a company that would control the product from the software to the hardware to the contents to the marketing – what he called “end-to-end integration.” In this regard, Apple lost out to Microsoft in the 1990’s, because Bill Gates (CEO of Microsoft) licensed his software (Windows operating system, etc.) to any computer manufacturer that wanted it.

I remember thinking in the 1990’s that Apple’s obsession with total control had hurt it in comparison to Microsoft, and that a general principle of business was that you needed to share and integrate with others, rather than keep everything to yourself – in other words large-scale collaboration made for the best business environment. By 1996, well after Jobs left the company, Apple’s share of the personal computer market shrank to 4%.

But this apparent weakness turned out to be a huge strength since the late 1990’s, when Jobs came back and took over a rotting Apple. The company he returned to had spread itself thin with too many products and a preoccupation with the bottom line. (Interestingly, money never motivated Jobs, although he ended up a multi-billionaire.) He brought back its design excitement and forced Apple to focus.


Lesson #4: Focus, focus, intensely focus. He trimmed Apple down from dozens of product lines to four “great” product lines, which eventually grew into the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. He believed in making Apple products “insanely great.” As Tim Cook, Jobs’ personally-chosen successor at Apple, has said: “There is no one better at turning off the noise that is going on around him….That allows him to focus on a few things and say no to many things. Few people are really good at that.”


Were His HCP Traits Necessary For His Success?    

High conflict people (HCPs) are the most difficult people in relationships – whether personal or at work – because they repeatedly attack and blame those around them. Combine this with a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behavior, and you have someone who generally fails at their relationships and fails at their goals, although they may have short-term successes. Steve seems to have had all four of these traits:


Blaming others: He would rage and tantrum at anyone, even strangers. He fired people at large meetings – replacing them on the spot. He routinely told employees and managers that what they were producing was “shit,” and many of them lived in fear of his tirades.

All-or-nothing thinking: As Isaacson describes his intense personality:

This intensity encouraged a binary view of the world. Colleagues referred to the hero/shithead dichotomy. You were either one or the other, sometimes on the same day. The same was true of products, ideas, even food: Something was either “the best thing ever,” or it was shitty, brain-dead, inedible.

Unmanaged emotions: Again, Isaacson pays special attention to this personality trait:

He was often tightly coiled and impatient, traits he made no effort to hide. Most people have a regulator between their mind and mouth that modulates their brutish sentiments and spikiest impulses. Not Jobs. He made a point of being brutally honest. “My job is to say when something sucks rather than sugarcoat it,” he said… 

Andy Herzfeld [one of his closest colleagues] once told me, “The one question I’d truly love Steve to answer is, ‘Why are you sometimes so mean?’” Even his family members wondered whether he simply lacked the filter that restrains people from venting their wounding thoughts or willfully bypassed it. Jobs claimed it was the former. “This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not,” he replied when I asked him the question. But I think he actually could have controlled himself, if he had wanted.


Extreme behavior: In addition to his frequent workplace tirades, he publically criticized important people, took big risks in show downs in negotiating business deals (the book has some dramatic examples of how he dealt with Disney’s Eisner and then Iger on behalf of contracts with Pixar – mostly to his success), and insisted on driving his car without a license and parking in the handicapped spot!   

But his story didn’t end here. In fact, I would say that his apparent HCP traits are only half of the story. As this biography tells us, he also had some collaborative tendencies and excellent teams to work with.  


The Collaborative Steve Jobs: From the start, he was raised in the collaborative spirit of Silicon Valley – and a communal apple orchard. He admired the nearby Hewlett-Packard partnership, which was a foundation for much of his thinking. He saw the benefit of learning from peers and allowing his colleagues to specialize while remaining collaborative, including the following:


Lesson #5: Have face-to-face problem-solving. He loved face-to-face, rough and tumble meetings, with questions and challenges for all. He wanted his colleagues to push back, and he loved pushing back himself. Isaacson describes this:

Despite his autocratic nature – he never worshipped at the altar of consensus – Jobs worked hard to foster a culture of collaboration at Apple. Many companies pride themselves on having few meetings. Jobs had many: an executive staff session every Monday, a marketing strategy session all Wednesday afternoon, and endless product review sessions…. The phrases he used were “deep collaboration” and “concurrent engineering.” … “Our method was to develop integrated products, and that meant our process had to be integrated and collaborative,” Jobs said.


Lesson #6: Push your team beyond normal limits. One of the most interesting characteristics I found in this biography was the frequent reference by those around him to his “reality distortion field.” Apparently, he frequently pushed his teams to do things they never thought possible, by a combination of charm, tantrums and the insistence that they could do it. His wife called this his “magical thinking.” These are terms associated with mental health problems, yet he seems to have stayed within healthy bounds and made such thinking highly effective in his business. His stressed out teams often thanked him for this.

In one example, he is talking on the phone to a glass company executive, demanding that he push his company to make a new kind of glass for the iPhone. The company executive says it has never been done before and besides its impossible. Steve responds insisting that the glass company can do it – so they do! There are numerous examples of this and it seems as though he wills himself to believe – so it happens!


How Did His Colleagues Manage Him?

Lesson #7: Hire “A” team members and listen to them. Even though Jobs could go into rages, demand the impossible and refuse to accept minor details until they were changed, he did listen to those closest to him. He said he hired “A” team players and that they must cope with him and not take it personally.

This is probably best exemplified by his hand-picked successor, Tim Cook, who said that his key to staying calm and unfrazzled around an angry Steve Jobs was that he didn’t take it personally. Others who dealt with him have said the same thing. His wife, Laurene, is credited with guiding and managing him without getting too frustrated or emotional herself. However, they all used a very assertive approach, and didn’t let him steamroll them.



My conclusion from reading this book is that Jobs certainly had HCP traits, but his commitment to excellent product design and his natural instinct for collaboration made him a collaborative leader and not a dysfunctional personality. The personality traits that helped him the most were his intensity and his ability to focus, which enhanced his genius for design. But personality traits come in all combinations. I don’t believe that his high-conflict traits were necessary to his success and they might have prevented his success, except for his collaborative traits and ability to gather a collaborative team. There are many HCPs who run businesses and workgroups into the ground because they believe in themselves when they shouldn’t. Without his design talent and collaborative teams, I doubt that he would have succeeded.  


I was very pleased to read that those around him managed him using the CARS method® we recommend for dealing with HCPs: Connecting calmly, rather than getting angry back. Analyzing problems and speaking up about alternative solutions. Responding to misinformation (such as his reality distortion field), but only when necessary. Setting limits in a gentle way, such as you would an impetuous child. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in leadership, collaborative workgroups and managing HCPs.


Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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