Black turtleneck, Levi’s 501 jeans and white New Balance trainers. The way that Steve Jobs presented himself – in service of promoting the Apple brand – became so iconic that we now associate those clothes with him. Jobs and the company he co-founded have provided ample material for Hollywood, which has produced two films about the former CEO in as many years.
The latest, Steve Jobs, by director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin does not shy away from showing the darker sides of Jobs' character and the cult of leadership that surrounded him. Focusing almost entirely on the product launches that defined his leadership persona, the film makes much of Jobs' attention to detail. But his mastery of the choreographed presentations contrasts starkly with the messiness of the back stage preparations, where Jobs' human failings as a colleague and father are relentlessly exposed.
Certainly, Jobs was a skilled corporate operator. The film accurately presents him at product launches before an adoring audience whose response is more akin to that of teenage fans at a pop concert than sceptical journalists and consumers at a corporate sales pitch. It is well-established that performance based on the skillful use of rhetoric is central to contemporary corporate leadership, and Jobs is recognised as a master of the persuasive use of language. This extended beyond language, of course, to his trademark uniform – all part of displaying the authenticity that he saw as crucial for cultivating a following.
Despite Jobs' high profile and popularity during his lifetime, few were prepared for the scenes of public mourning that followed the announcement of his death in 2011. Most striking were the spontaneous shrines of candles, flowers, half-eaten apples, and post-it notes – an emblem of Jobs' creativity – which appeared outside Apple stores across the world. Never before had there been such a display of vernacular mourning for a corporate leader.
Cult of leadership
Yet Jobs also had a reputation among some for viciously autocratic leadership and was widely represented, including in his authorised biography, as a bully who made impossible demands on his colleagues and took credit for their ideas. It is a side of Jobs that the film makes evident – to the criticism of family and corporate executives.
So how does the CEO of a technology company with a reputation for autocratic leadership become a global icon of public worship and devotion? Research has shown that the Apple brand is built on encouraging consumers to see its products as sacred. The company sold Macintosh computers in the 1980s through “corporate evangelizing”, a technique developed by the company’s “chief evangelist”, marketer Guy Kawasaki. He encouraged Mac users to adopt techniques similar to those used by evangelical Christians to persuade others to convert to the brand.
A salvation narrative was key to this, promoting the idea that Apple technology enabled transcendence from the constraints of mundane physical life. The peak of this promotion came in Apple’s famous 1984 TV advertisement, which drew on the Orwellian notion of Big Brother and called on consumers to revolt against the boring, grey conformity of the rest of the tech world.
The contemporary Apple brand is still based on this belief system. Jobs was framed within it as a prophetic figure, or “iGod”. He certainly brought a religious intensity to his work and can be seen in the film justifying vile behaviour toward a colleague by saying: “God sent his only son on a suicide mission but we like him anyway.” The problem with any cult-like approach to leadership, however, is that it inculcates dependency on the leader and denies the possibility of dissent.
Still, the cult of Steve Jobs seems set to endure. Since his death, a string of feature films, documentaries and major biographies have helped maintain the myth that Jobs had magical powers. His dubious leadership practices have been put to one side as unfortunate manifestations of his alleged genius. This ongoing worship may be an attempt to deny death by keeping the myth of his charismatic leadership alive, to assuage our own anxieties and fears about mortality.
The response to Jobs’ death, and the films and books about his life that followed, expose our collective fascination with charismatic business leaders. We are quick to celebrate (and mourn) Jobs for his role in building Apple. But slow to criticise the part he played in developing a global business model that some have questioned for its environmental and social impact – in particular with relation to supply and manufacturing.
As social theorist Judith Butler explains, how different people are grieved says a lot about who and what we value in society. Deifying Steve Jobs and forgetting his flaws as a leader is a worrying reflection of the value we place on certain kinds of leadership. Thankfully, the latest representation of Jobs' life shows the messy reality of life as a corporate leader, and that he was no more or less human than anyone else.
This article was co-orthored with Professor Emma Bell and was first published on The Conversation, 9 November 2015