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Learning from Steve

Chris Green, Vice Principal of Oak Hill, who lives in ‘a completely Mac household’, looks at the man behind Apple, the late Steve Jobs.

I can be, on occasion, a geek. Even back at school I was in the computer club, punching holes in long strips of pink paper, so that a machine the size of a greenhouse could work out prime numbers. I programmed a Sinclair ZX81. I fitted hard drives, floppy drives (when the disks were floppy), CD-Roms and extra RAM.

I simply didn't get it when a friend showed me his Apple Macintosh back in 1985. I said that Macs were fine for some people, but I wanted a computer. One with screws I could undo.

Of course, I was only a hobby geek. Real geeks were taking things further and faster, and they went way beyond my abilities to tinker. So it was, about four years ago, that when we went shopping for a new computer, and I was calculating how many beige boxes I was about to bring into the house, that I inadvertently wandered past an Apple stand and saw a gorgeous, slim grey monitor standing on a table.

'That's a pretty monitor,' I said to the salesman. 'Where's the computer?'

He smiled. He had me hooked. Because not only had I fallen at the first fence, aesthetics, I was about to fall at the second, function. That monitor was the computer. All of it. Not a beige box in sight.

That seamless experience of form and function, the delight that should run from opening the box ('designed in California') through to daily use, was the obsession of Jobs. He wanted to create computers for everyone, not just the geeks, but he believed passionately in the need to create beautiful objects, programs, fonts which would enhance the lives of the people who bought his product. And for someone like me, he succeeded.

We are a completely Mac household, and I am typing this review on my iPad. In his mind, computers are not just tools to get routine work done, but 'bicycles for the mind', freeing us to work with creativity at the intersections of arts and science.

His long anticipated death from a rare pancreatic cancer has not only produced an unpredictably large range of newspaper coverage, it also meant he was able to focus on working with Walter Isaacson in producing his authorised biography. This then is no pot-boiler of a book, but a careful piece that had Jobs' involvement, if not his approval. It is probably as close as we will get to a rounded portrait of one of the most significantly creative people of the last quarter century.

The focus of this edition of Commentary is on leadership, and so I don't intend to review the book or analyse Jobs spiritually, but to ponder a couple of its major themes with that angle. At some point it would be worth wondering whether if Jobs had remained in the Christian fold (he was raised a Lutheran by his adoptive parents) we could have given him better tools to think about art and beauty than he found in Buddhism.

In the world of business, there is probably no more important thinker or writer than Jim Collins, and he has championed the idea of the 'Level 5' leader: a person of integrity and humility, more concerned for the company than his or her own ego. Companies are in danger when they fall for the 'myth of the charismatic hero', the single person who serves as the saviour and centre of their success.

Jobs seemingly stands as a fascinating counter-example to Collins' thesis. Apple grew around Jobs; when he left, the company stalled and came close to closure, and when he later returned, shares rallied and products emerged to reach the point where, a few months before his death, Apple was the most valuable company on the planet.

His obsession with detail, his conviction about his unique view of design, his seemingly irreplaceable presence at launch events, argue strongly that Collins has called this wrongly. Either that, or Apple is a bubble company whose value will tumble under anyone else's leadership.

I think there are a couple of hints that Collins is right, but that Jobs was aware of the problem. Jobs himself notably relaxes at two points in the narrative: once when he appoints the designer Jonny Ive, a man with the same aesthetic and love of detail, and again when he appoints Tim Crook, someone who shares his view of manufacturing and products.

At both points he relaxes because someone other than him 'gets it'. I think why Apple will not crash is because both Ives and Crook are still in post, and now in charge.

In other words, to bring in another of Collins' categories, Jobs was concerned with the legacy of the company. He did not want Apple to collapse after his death in order to prove how indispensable he was, but rather to continue to reinvent itself.

Jobs was also involved in the movie company Pixar and dealt repeatedly with Disney. Now Disney is almost the textbook example of a company with a founder who had such a strong presence that it lost its way for over a decade after Walt Disney's death, notoriously paralysed by the question, 'What would Walt do?'.

Jobs will have known that story, and has put in place not only a plan for the next few years, but the impetus to go beyond that and design products that would have taken him by surprise.

Christian leaders, take note. In an infinitely and eternally more significant way, our ministries are not about us. First, we have a great and charismatic leader who will never step down. He also, wonderfully, models the humility that allows our sin and salvation to take centre stage because of his passion for his Father's glory.

Under that, we therefore know that our ministries are to benefit others, and that we must not lead churches to feed our egos or to be irreplaceable. All we ever are is servants who will one day die, but we are working for the Saviour's project which will never fail. We must not be the stars in our churches.

A second observation. Jobs was on many occasions a deeply unpleasant man, so socially cruel that one wonders if he had something wrong with him. For all his adherence to Zen Buddhism in his aesthetic, yoga and diet, it clearly never gave him any internal calm or indifference.

He seems to have operated with the same mindset as so many artists throughout history, and championed by the Bloomsbury set, that 'Because I am such a vital and creative person, the normal rules of morality do not apply to me. I live by different values.'

So he shouted, swore, bullied and verbally murdered anyone in his life, children and wife included. Remarkably, he still managed to keep an extraordinary team in place so the rewards (and I don't mean financial) must have been great. It's the Amadeus question again which Peter Schaffer raised in his play, as the excellent Salieri yells at God because he was dwarfed by the sublime but foul-mouthed Mozart.

The secular press has simply found this a mystery and an inconsistency, but I think we can do better. What else would we expect of the fallen image of God, but sublime gifts in a defaced human being? Jobs loved simplicity of life, but was unable to grasp generosity; he loved beauty but was seemingly unable to grasp much of the beauty of love.

How much more inconsistent, though, to find similar traits among those of us who are being remade in the image of God. After all, it's not unknown to hear about pastors who rage against the elders, or bully their children. Jobs just pushed it a bit further.

But what about being challenged out of our idleness by Jobs? He once recruited a senior staff members from Pepsi with the famous question, 'Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want to change the world?' I don't think Jobs changed the world either, although it is arguable he has temporarily changed the experience of it for a great many people.

But we do have the message about the one who has changed the world, forever, and he has given us that message to pass on. I don't want us to be as obsessively driven as Jobs, because that is sinful pride, but I do find myself rebuked by his passion, and his high standards.

The fall has defaced the image, and this biography shows us the ugliness of sin in one man's life, but it has not erased it. That, I think, is why I enjoy Apple products. As Jobs intended, the entire experience, right from the moment you switch one on, has genuinely been designed with love of beauty. I appreciate that.
 
chris green  
Chris Green is Vice Principal of Oak Hill.  
commentary magazine  
Read Commentary magazine online: click here (PDF, 4.8Mb)  
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