How idolising Steve Jobs and Elon Musk could cause lasting damage

Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are heroes to many (including me) but they’ve caused lasting damage in their relentless quest to change the world. In some ways they deserve the demi-god status they’ve acquired through a track record of disrupting the status quo and creating trends. On the other hand, humanity can do without their special brand of tyrannical, uncompromising egotism. People that view them as role models for leadership are dangerous and destined to inflict untold suffering on their hapless employees.

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Steve Jobs is well known for his work at Apple and the role he played in the launch of the iPhone, iPad and Macbook. It was Job’s genius in understanding design and user experience that changed our world forever. It signaled the death of long, complicated user manuals, and birthed several generations of new phones and tablets. Jobs died tragically in October 2011 and humanity lost one of its most important champions of change.

Musk on the other hand is currently the CEO of Space X and Tesla, and Chairman of Solar City. Making his fortune in silicon valley, the South African born entrepreneur has simultaneously disrupted the entrenched space, automotive and energy industries. Musk’s net worth at time of writing is estimated at around 12 billion dollars and there’s no sign of his ambition abating. Mars beckons.

Neither Jobs or Musk are great leaders. This may sound counter intuitive given that they were or are the heads of their respective companies, but this underlines the fact that most people don’t understand what good leadership is. Most have never experienced it, and the media’s portrayal of leadership shows partisan support for the risk taking, uncompromising tyrants like Jobs and Musk. The media is looking for heroes; individuals that we can aspire to be, not for stories of effectively managed teams.

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Listening to an autobiography of Elon Musk by Ashlee Vance, and taking my cues from popular Jobs mythology is probably not the best starting point to construct a detailed character assassination. But this is not my aim. My contention is that Jobs and Musk are great visionaries but this doesn’t mean they are leaders. In fact the uncompromising nature of both men, creates the impression that Jobs was, and Musk is, what you’d call an “arsehole”.

“Yeah we had some very good software engineers at Zip2, but I mean, I could code way better than them. And I’d just go in and fix their fucking code. I would be frustrated waiting for their stuff. So I’m going to go and fix your code and now it runs five times faster you idiot!” – Elon Musk

Whether Musk could code better then most people is not up for debate, but quotes like this illustrate his blatant disregard for the mental health of his employees. Anyone close to Musk appears to have a unique ability to accept the aggression and directness of his style. There’s no leadership here, just unbridled, raw, uncompromising vision.

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For evidence that Steve Jobs was a visionary but not a great leader, look no further than 16 Examples of Steve Jobs Being a Massive Jerk. It’s fairly well documented that there are those in silicon valley who idolise Jobs and generally treat people like shit, but don’t have vision to make it palatable.

It’s hard to argue with success, but let’s remember we are talking about leadership. There is no disputing that Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are worthy of a place in humanity’s hall of fame. But don’t look to them for leadership advice, it will just make you an arsehole and people are more likely to leave you then love you. Everyone has had a micro-manager who can’t deal with letting other people have control or who isn’t patient enough to let their staff learn from from their mistakes. I find people’s general attitude to management, genuinely disturbing. In a recent leadership workshop words like “force”, “dominant” and “control” were discussed as being positive attributes for a leader.

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It’s time to re-calibrate our view of leadership and move away from the male orientated, macho approach to something like the servant leader philosophy introduced by Lao-Tzu. It will make our work, and personal lives, much happier. And hopefully combine the maniac visionaries to a dark room where they can’t cause harm to others.

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