It is close to seven years since he passed away, but the moment any CEO acts in a manner that borders on the arrogant or irresponsible, the ghost of Steve Jobs is popped out of the grave as an example that “creative people can and will be different, and have a right to be arrogant and/or eccentric sometimes.”
So it has been hardly surprising that ever since Elon Musk was asked to step down as chairman of Tesla following a rather reckless tweet about taking Tesla private and having raised funds to do so, there have been people springing to the defence of the Tesla CEO, citing his genius as an excuse for “a slight error of judgement,” albeit one highlight on social networks. And of course, Jobs will duly be trotted out again as an example of how genius cannot be held accountable to “normal” human conduct and regulation.
The problem is: it can. And should. Genius can be allowed its eccentricities as long as the people it affects are those who are aware of its potential. But the moment the “genius” gets into a domain that is remotely public, it loses its rights to random eccentricity. It should be remembered that Jobs alleged shows of temper and insensitivity – while the stuff of legend – were largely private affairs. One did not get to actually witness them on a public stage.
We were told how Jobs could be incredibly rude, or how he shouted at someone, or stole someone’s ideas and presented them as his own. The key words there are “we were told.” ‘Jobs’ (mis)conduct was almost never public. For all his faults, the man never crossed the line on a forum that was likely to be seen by people at large.
Even when he did make remarks like declaring “thermonuclear war on Android” or poked fun at Microsoft and IBM, he did it while providing a rationale. And it is something that has percolated into Apple culture – even today, at a time when most companies and executives are embracing social networks and often tweeting their hearts out, Apple is remarkably restrained. To be the point of being dull, but never irresponsible or reckless.
He may have had the reputation of being selfish to the point of being self-obsesses day, but Jobs could never be accused of not being aware of who his audience was, and more importantly, how his words could affect them. Yes, he loved to portray himself as a creative person who was changing the world but never for a moment did he seem to forget the fact that he was also a CEO, a person whose opinion and words could sway others. He never let his ego or temper (and he had ample supply of both, if we are to believe the tales about him) take the stock market for a ride.
That unfortunately, seems to be a virtue that Elon Musk seems to lack in totality. The CEO and soon to be former Chairman of Tesla seems to be blissfully unaware of the impact that he can have, not just on his fan following (which would anyway forgive him a multitude of sins) but also on his company and indeed on a whole industry.
No one is denying the ability of the man one bit – he has the gift of seeing things that lesser mortals cannot even dream of – but what also cannot be denied is his penchant for reckless public pronouncements, be it talk of taking Tesla private, criticizing journalists or alleging that a critic of his was a pedophile. Yes, he might be super creative and a genius (and only a fool would dare debate that), but he does not seem to realise that he does not live in a bubble – indeed, even the most random of his tweets can affect not just the lives of people, but the very company that he heads.
Jobs was no angel, but ironically what many considered to be his Achilles Heel – a penchant for showmanship – was actually his biggest strength. He knew WHEN he was on stage. He knew WHEN the public was watching. And as a result, almost never did anything that could embarrass him or his organization.
Even when he was asking questions that criticized him, his reaction was generally to be patient and answer with a touch of humour. When his iPhone presentation had a problem (the clicker stopped working), he did not stamp around in a rage or even show the least amount of irritation – he instead went on to narrate a prank he and Wozniak played at college. Now, by all accounts, had either of those events occurred in a private meeting room, all hell would have broken loose. But they happened on stage and there, Jobs was more responsible CEO than reckless genius.
One can be a renegade, and yet be responsible.
One can be a genius, and yet be a businessperson.
One can be creative, and yet be sensible.
One can be individualistic, and yet remember one’s public.
One can be crazy, and still not drive people mad.
One can be on Twitter, and yet not be a troll.
Now, if only someone can explain that to Mr Musk.