Sunday, November 27, 2011

Be Like Steve?

     I'm typing this post on my ipad2, which I got the day after Steve Jobs died. I can't say I was inspired by his passing, as I already had placed the order. Similarly, Walter Isaacson's superb biography of Jobs came out soon after his death, on the previously set date.  I would have read the book anyway, because of both the subject and the author. Years before Jobs had requested that Isaacson write the book, and he had amazing access to Jobs and many other people. Jobs wanted the book to be honest, and it certainly seems to be, given the complexity in which it presents him.
     The book is stunning in many ways, from the level of research to the quality of writing. I found myself reading bits whenever I had the chance, even a couple of pages at a time. The entire time, I found myself wondering about one basic question: Would I want to be Steve Jobs?
     Near the end of the book, Isaacson makes a list of the innovations that Jobs spearheaded. You know the details, so I won't bother running it down. Surely Jobs, as he set out to do, made "a dent in the universe." If you want a more objective measure, based on rate of return, Jobs is the most successful CEO of all time. No one can seriously question his singular greatness and historical significance.
     Yet, I have to ask, at what cost?
     If asked to choose one adjective to describe Jobs, I would say haunted. Whatever his demons--and, in classic armchair psychiatrist fashion, I diagnosed him with bipolar disorder, type 1 with some raging narcissism--Jobs found life painful. He raged. He sobbed. He abandoned. He embraced. He scoffed. He honored. All these often in rapid succession, frequently at the same target. He ended up enemies with some he had seen as best friends; he even basically abandoned Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and kept him from getting some stock options. One thing I don't recall him ever doing, and that is apologizing.
     Jobs obsessed over every detail of each product--not just the function, but the design. In fact, the latter sometimes overruled the former. Once Jobs decided on a design, he simply expected engineers who called it impossible to achieve Herculean feats to make it work. Usually they succeeded. But Jobs could become neurotic about certain design aspects, such as when he wanted internal screws on a computer, which had nothing to do with performance, to have a certain finish that added greatly to the cost. Jobs had to control everything, mainly because he was truly convinced that only he could be right. For this reason, he also was known to blast ideas, change his way of thinking, and then take credit for having had the idea in the first place.
   Brilliant? Truly visionary? Revolutionary? Without a doubt. Greatest CEO ever? Maybe.
     In pondering that, I have to raise questions about my leadership as a head of school. After all, as one of my trustees likes to ask when we're discussing something, "What does the CEO want to see happen?" Well, I certainly don't ever see myself operating like Jobs. I like to think I still function like a teacher, but with a different classroom. The greatest teachers help others realize what they can become and help them fulfill that potential. They also know how to set things up and get out of the way. Yes, I want to be a great head of school. But that doesn't mean that I have to set out to change the world on my own. Instead, I have to strive to make the most positive difference I can in my corner of the world, the trust that the ripple effect will spread the benefits. That's my goal in all aspects of my life. Then my life and work will have mattered.
     At the same time, I hope that I can keep my ambition in perspective. True excellence comes with costs. If he weren't so driven, Jobs could not have achieved all he did. Therein lies another lesson for us a educators. We need to be very careful about the mixed message we send to young people when we encourage them to achieve excellence and to maintain balance. The concepts are mutually exclusive. Similarly, we preach the values of altruistic service, yet we remind students to build their resume. We also need to make sure that we don't let the wrong payoffs cause us to forget our values. Recently a Dallas principal was receiving all kinds of accolades for how much the reading and math scores had risen at her school. Then it was discovered that her teachers had been told to abandon all science and social studies instruction to focus on test preparation. Now what is her legacy?
     When he died, Jobs was with several family members. His last words were "Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!" People have interpreted this in a positive fashion--that he was finally gratefully in touch with the people who had stuck with him. I'm not so sure. Jobs always had been obsessed with his own mortality, and I think he was commenting on his imminent death more than anything else.
    So back to that one question: Would I want to be Steve Jobs? I am in awe of his talents and grateful that he saw what people wanted even before we knew it. As I learn more and more about what I can do on my ipad, I believe it is the best device for kids to have in school. Yet rather than being the creator of the ipad, I'm very content conceiving of the possibilities it holds for education. What about you?

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