The Right Kind of Tyrant
From the Oct. 3, 2011, issue of NR


Rob Long

The business world is famous for its difficult bosses, to put it as mildly as possible. There are screamers and throwers and silent-treatment types — all kinds and shapes of cruelty. If you go to the right bars around the downtown area of any major city and get a stool close to a group of young-looking people in suits, you can hear some pretty alarming stories about their bosses. The American economy, it sometimes seems, is run by demanding and irrational psychopaths assisted by terrified fauns.

It’s hard, though, when you reach a certain age, not to instinctively side with the psychopaths. 

Steve Jobs, the two-time impresario behind the astonishing success of Apple Computer, has a reputation for being — well, I won’t use the “P” word, so we’ll have to settle for “demanding.” He’s a demanding boss, from all accounts. 

A friend of mine who spent some time in Cupertino — and that’s how the cool kids refer to Apple HQ: “Cupertino,” which is where it’s based, deep in Silicon Valley — has shared lots of stories about Jobs’s famous temper, his obsessive perfectionism, his willingness to shelve any project or product (or employee) that doesn’t meet his high standards. 

“In a meeting with Steve, you have to be prepared for his questions,” my friend told me, adding darkly, “all of his possible questions, from how long a product will take to build to how it might be shipped to whether it should come in blue. When he asks a question, you have to be prepared.”


My friend shook his head, deep into an Angry-Steve Flashback. “It’s not good.”

The stories of Steve’s temper are passed around Silicon Valley like business cards. Steve tossing a chair when a prototype wasn’t thin enough. Steve firing an engineer in an elevator when the engineer told him about the battery life of a new iPhone. Steve scrapping an entire product line because it wasn’t perfect, and had no hope of becoming perfect. Steve demanding more features. Steve insisting on better syncing. Steve shouting for thinner. Steve screaming for lighter. Steve terrifying his employees, his vendors, his business partners. Steve, engaged in furious e-mail exchanges with journalists, bloggers, and random customers who happened to e-mail him at the right moment, when he was taking a break from making his employees sweat and from engineering even higher standards.

And somehow, in the midst of all of this shouting and demanding and firing and insisting, Steve starts a movie studio, Pixar, and produces some of the most lasting and powerful animated movies ever made, like the Toy Story trilogy and the magnificent Up.

He didn’t accomplish any of this by being an understanding boss.

When a young engineer absentmindedly left a working prototype of the unreleased newest iPhone at a Silicon Valley bar, it was big news in the tech world. One industry blog managed to get its hands on the unit, prompting Steve to call in the cops. Friends of the engineer said they expected him to be plucked off the street one day and disappear into an unmarked van. They were only half-joking.

It’s hard to keep that in mind, when you pass through the gleaming high style of your local Apple store, with the beehive of purposeful, slightly scruffy young people milling around in T-shirts. The Apple Store is such a friendly place. That’s a big part of the Apple brand — ease of use, sleek design, shiny screens. When the company introduced its revolutionary Macintosh computer in the early 1980s, the product photo showed the squat, mini-looking unit with a smiley face on its screen. “Hi,” the computer was saying, thus giving birth to one of the most successful consumer brands ever.