Isaacson on Jobs: Should He Have Been a Nicer CEO?

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Courtesy 92Y

Steve Jobs' biographer Walter Isaacson discusses the Apple CEO with TIME Managing Editor Rick Stengel at the 92nd Street Y in New York, January 24, 2012.

During Tuesday evening’s State of the Union address, President Obama honored the memory of Steve Jobs by underscoring the creative and technological engines that drive America. He also called attention to one of the necessary evils of progress: risk. “We should support … every risk taker and entrepreneur who aspires to become the next Steve Jobs,” said the President. “After all, innovation is what America has always been about.”

By embracing risks, Jobs inspired his employees, his competition and most of all his customers, who developed a cultish attachment to his products. So it was appropriate that even as Congress was applauding Jobs’ impact on the business world, the man who perhaps knew the Apple founder best – his biographer, Walter Isaacson – was at the 92nd Street Y on Manhattan’s Upper East Side telling a standing-room-only audience of 600 of insights gained during the two years he spent interviewing Jobs.

In this case, the questions were being asked by TIME managing editor Richard Stengel. Isaacson preceded Stengel as head of TIME – and had been Stengel’s boss – so the conversation included moments of nostalgia as well as some frank discussion about managerial styles. As a boss, of course, Jobs was famously prone to extreme bluntness, which was often construed as intentional meanness. Isaacson saw it a little differently. “He intuitively did not have that filter,” he explained, pointing to an example he witnessed firsthand. “When the person at Whole Foods is making his smoothie and she’s taking too long, [most people] have a filter that says ‘Don’t jump on her.’ But Steve was brutally honest.”

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Courtesy 92Y

It’s hard to argue with the approach of the guy who built America’s most successful company, but Isaacson said he wasn’t persuaded to emulate Jobs in that respect. “In life, one of the top one or two rules is Be Nice,” he said. “Maybe I’ll never invent the iPhone, but I’m not going to get mad at colleagues or someone making a smoothie in Whole Foods.”

Could a “nicer” Jobs have been as successful? “Could he have put that filter in place and said, ‘I’m going to be just as effective as I am now, but I’m also going to bite my tongue and stop myself’?” he wondered. “That is a fundamental question in life.” If he didn’t quite offer an answer, Isaacson did point to the company’s unusually high retention rate, and suggested that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it was Apple’s culture – not its products – that ultimately set it apart. “Creating a great product isn’t the hard part,” Isaacson said. “The hard part is creating a great company that will continue to create a great product that will be at the intersection of creativity and technology.”

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Isaacson’s previous biographies had focused on long-dead luminaries: Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. This time, he said, he worried about what Jobs himself would think of the story. But Jobs put those fears to rest early on by asking that Isaacson be “brutally honest.” In fact, Jobs also told Isaacson that he planned to wait six months before reading the book himself – a typical example, said Isaacson, of the profoundly ill CEO’s contagious and courageous optimism.