What Does it Matter if Steve Jobs was a Sociopath?

Reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is an interesting experience for a brand strategist. On one hand the world’s most valuable brand has just lost its visionary leader. On the other, the specifics of his character and behaviors would have led to medical intervention in most other contexts. In the middle stands the question mark that should now follow the Apple name. Because a lot of people are wondering what’s going to become of the company, now that Steve Jobs is dead.

The book reads as a litany of lunacies punctuated by moments of pinpoint insight. So much so that an assessment of his life and achievements would have to include a number of “buts”. He was brilliant but maniacal. He was insightful about human nature but blind to social reality. He was integral to the development of Apple products but the company’s output will not be ill-affected by his death.

Let’s talk about that last one. One point that Isaacson emphasizes is that Jobs wanted to build a company that outlasted him. He wanted Apple to be a landmark brand that stood on its own, well into the future. In order for this to happen, the specific qualities that he brought to the company, or at least the ones at the core of its success have to exist somewhere other than within his (now lost) mercurial presence. They have to be imbedded within the corporate culture.

Apple’s success comes from the qualities of its products that make them different from anything else on the market. It comes from the idea of lifestyle technology. It is where gadgets meet emotion. Jobs had a stringency with which he approached product design. He had insight as to the parameters of enjoyment between people and technology. The question is, did he teach those qualities to the company itself?

It’s going to be a while before we feel the full effect of Jobs’ death. What will happen, for instance, when the new employees start to outnumber those who were there during the Jobs years? When the corporate legend starts to replace the corporate memory? Will the same standards remain? The management challenge going forward will be to keep those standards alive. And to find a way to know when to put on the brakes or veer in another direction, just like Steve did.