Steve Jobs’ deification serves a very basic and fundamental human need

“I am not that surprised that an academic of entrepreneurship (are you kidding me?) would lead a story about one of the world’s best innovators and CEO’s about that he actually and in fact ! OMG had body odour as a teenager because of his diet, not to mention the rest of your embarrassing piece. Forbes would be best sticking with writers that are inspired by such great entrepreneurs as Steve Jobs, and not with writers such as this, who are unhappy they have not had the courage to ‘live the life they love and not settle’ and so sit in front of their computer with not much else to do but trying to bring others down. Shame on you Mr Vermeulen”. 

This is just one of the comments I received on my earlier piece “Steve Jobs – the man was fallible” (also published on my Forbes blog). Of course, this was not unanticipated; having the audacity to suggest that, in fact, the great man did not possess the ability to walk on water was the closest thing to business blasphemy. And indeed a written stoning duly followed.

But why is suggesting that a human being like Steve Jobs was in fact fallible – who, in the same piece, I also called “a management phenomenon”, “fantastically able”, “a legend”, and “a great leader” – by some considered to be such an act of blasphemy? All I did was claim that he was “fallible”, “not omnipotent”, and “not always right”, which as far as I can see comes with the definition of being human?

And I guess that’s exactly it; in life and certainly in death Steve Jobs transcended the status of being human and reached the status of deity. A journalist of the Guardian compared the reaction (especially in the US) to the death of Steve Jobs with the reaction in England to the death of Princess Diana; a collective outpour of almost aggressive emotion by people who only ever saw the person they are grieving about briefly on television or at best in a distance. Suggesting Princess Diana was fallible was not a healthy idea immediately following her death (and still isn’t); nor was suggesting Steve Jobs was human. 

We are inclined to deify successful people in the public eye, and in our time that certainly includes CEOs. In the past, in various cultures, it may have been ancient warriors, Olympians, or saints. They became mythical and transcended humanity, quite literally reaching God-like status.

Historians and geneticists argue that this inclination for deification is actually deeply embedded in the human psyche, and we have evolved to be prone to worship. There is increasing consensus that man came to dominate the earth – and for instance drive out Neanderthalers, who were in fact stronger, likely more intelligent, and had more sophisticated tools – because of our superior ability to organize into larger social systems. And a crucial role in this, fostering social cohesion, was religion, which centers on myths and deities. This inclination for worship very likely became embedded into our genetic system, and it is yearning to come out and be satisfied, and great people such as Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, and Lady Di serve to fulfill this need. 

But that of course does not mean that they were infallible and could in fact walk on water. We just don’t want to hear it. Great CEOs realize that their near deification is a gross exaggeration, and sometimes even get annoyed by its suggestion – Amex’s Ken Chenault told me that he did not like it at all, and I have seen that same reaction in Southwest’s Herb Kelleher. Slightly less-great CEOs do start to believe their own status, and people like Enron’s Jeff Skilling or Ahold’s Cees van der Hoeven come to mind; not coincidentally they are often associated with spectacular business downfalls. I have never spoken to Steve Jobs, but I am guessing he might not have disagreed with the qualifications “not omnipotent”, “not always right” and, most of all, “human”.

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12 Comments on “Steve Jobs’ deification serves a very basic and fundamental human need”

  1. JC says:

    Deification certainly goes back aways – think of Homer.

    On Steve Jobs, of course, I think we may miss the particularities of his being a business hero.

    That reflects our sense of society and implicit priorities. No longer do we deify educators (too bad for us) or, since Darwin, even author/scientists or playwrights, though Harry Potter may change that. No, we see ourselves in a capitalist democracy and as Don Hambrick’s research has shown for decades, we cannot resist deifying the likes of Lee Iacocca, no matter how that leads them to err – as many a Greek fable tells us.

    But on Steve Jobs and his doings this is a good reason to check out our colleague Dick Rumelt’s blog: http://www.strategyland.com/

  2. [...] Steve Jobs’ deification serves a very basic and fundamental human need – [...]

  3. Praise and blame were his in his lifetime. His passing only provided more opportunity for comments, all at the same time.

    What separates Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and the others of their business sector from other CEOs is their lack of formal education. America is a nation of autodidacts. Ultimately, entrepreneurship can only be self-taught. There are many ways to do it right and even more wrong, but it cannot be processed, bottled, packaged, and delivered from a lectern. Management can.

  4. biomuse says:

    Jobs is idealized because he made stuff that many people find beautiful and comforting as well as useful. The same personality, overseeing the manufacture of useful but not particularly noticeable components (say for example, the CEO of Cisco) will not have similar emotions projected onto him and will be neither deified nor vilified.

    In other words, the content of the output does matter, and it matters a lot. I don’t see that this has as much to do with the instinct to “deify” (a verb that I’m not really sure is accurately employed here) as it does with our desire to believe that beautiful results come from beautiful processes. We want to see the beautiful glass facade, the loving, multicultural ad campaigns, the Willy Wonka manchild creator sharing our awe onstage. We distinctly do not want to see the overworked Chinese teenagers sleeping like sardines in the few hours between the factory shifts that put those wondertoys into our hands, or the hardheaded SOBs who pay them whatever they may earn for being there.

  5. Bennett Mendes says:

    Why would the author even attempt to assert that Steve Jobs was not infallible is beyond any logical reasoning – which human is ? There must be a word or phrase to describe this type of tangential thinking and if any of your learned readers can put forth a suggestion, even if in another language, I’d gladly use it with due acknowledgement (Black perhaps ?)
    Neither Newton, Gandhi, King or Kennedy were infallible, so it beggars belief why anyone would expect Jobs to be.

    Where Jobs stood out, was that he was one of us – who made a difference.

    Think of the plethora of business executives with their collection of MBA degrees who strive towards nothing other than the bottom line. With their power suits/ties, lunches, corporate offices with mahogany desks looking out from some ivory tower, they march to the same battalion beat. It does not go unnoticed that their silence in the wake of one of their own’s passing was nothing short of deafening.

    Jobs was us – yes, he was one of us. He was ours. And we mourn his passing.

  6. [...] books and religions, in our sports teams and, yes, even in our corporate cultures. We obsess. We deify, as if there is a single defining idea of how innovation works, what makes a leader great, or how [...]

  7. [...] books and religions, in our sports teams and, yes, even in our corporate cultures. We obsess. We deify, as if there is a single defining idea of how innovation works, what makes a leader great, or how [...]

  8. [...] books and religions, in our sports teams and, yes, even in our corporate cultures. We obsess. We deify, as if there is a single defining idea of how innovation works, what makes a leader great, or how [...]

  9. [...] books and religions, in our sports teams and, yes, even in our corporate cultures. We obsess. We deify, as if there is a single defining idea of how innovation works, what makes a leader great, or how [...]

  10. [...] the London Business School. Religion “centers on myths and deities,” he wrote. “This inclination for worship very likely became embedded into our genetic system, and it is [...]

  11. [...] “Entrepreneurship can only be self-taught. There are many ways to do it right and even more wrong, but it cannot be processed, bottled, packaged, and delivered from a lectern”, one reader – Michael Marotta – commented on an earlier post. [...]

  12. [...] books and religions, in our sports teams and, yes, even in our corporate cultures. We obsess. We deify, as if there is a single defining idea of how innovation works, what makes a leader great, or how [...]


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