The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Tyrants of Goodness

Jobs and Shuttlesworth Remind Us That Results Come at a Price

The deaths of two men were in the news last week. Everybody has heard of one of them. Steve Jobs, a co-founder of Apple Computer and its long time CEO, died at age fifty-six from pancreatic cancer. The other is less known. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and long time civil rights demonstrator, died at age eighty-nine from old age and declining health resulting from a stroke suffered four years earlier.

There would not seem to be much in common, at first glance, between the white, middle-aged techno-wonk and elderly African American activist. Yet they had many qualities in common. Both were courageous visionaries, transforming whatever they touched. They were fearless and tough champions who earned respect from both colleagues and opponents. And both were widely regarded as being . . . well, assholes . . . a lot of the time.

The late Steve Jobs, Apple CEO and
inventor, and the late Reverend Fred
Shuttlesworth, civil rights activist
Shuttlesworth was a pastor his entire adult life, starting in 1953 at the Bethel Baptist Church of Birmingham Alabama, his hometown. In 1961, he moved to my hometown of Cincinnati Ohio, where he was pastor at Revelation Baptist Church and later Greater New Light Baptist Church until his retirement in 2006. He was an important leader in the early civil rights movement against segregation in the Old South, although he was eventually eclipsed by others, most notable the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

He often rubbed people the wrong way. He routinely used confrontation, antagonizing officials and even breaking what he felt were unjust laws in order to draw attention to problems. He endured attacks and beating numerous times in the early years of his activism and hundreds of jailings during his life. This not only earned him the enmity of white separatists but also troubled those who cherished propriety, including many in the black middle class.

Shuttlesworth repeatedly invited – some would say, “hounded” – King to visit Birmingham because of its repressive police force. King finally did and was subsequently arrested in the March on Birmingham. This was exactly according to plan. Shuttlesworth was the architect behind Project Confrontation, commonly known as Project C. This initiative stressed staged sit-ins, the release of politically charged manifestos, and other tactics to garner national awareness about racial injustice.

In his 1963 book, Why We Can't Wait, King hailed Shuttlesworth as “one of the nation's most courageous freedom fighters . . . a wiry, energetic and indomitable man.” Yet Shuttlesworth’s aggressiveness also aggravated King and he routinely strove to keep him at arm’s length. When he traveled to accept his Nobel Peace Prize one year later, Shuttlesworth was not included in his entourage, although King later insisted this was an oversight.

Shuttlesworth said his move to Cincinnati was an attempt to escape controversy but he continued his confrontational ways. He almost immediately began fighting with the congregation at his first ministry that led to a church split a few years later. He later immersed himself in a labor dispute between local grocery retailer Biggs and its employees. Shuttlesworth criticized the company for keeping out union organizers and providing weak 401(k) retirement and health insurance benefits.

He became president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he had helped found, in 2004. The organization's board suspended Shuttlesworth without comment a mere three months later after a dispute over a longtime official fired by him.

Shuttlesworth responded to criticisms against him by criticizing right back. He remained cheerfully unrepentant and unconcerned over any feathers he ruffled by his words and deeds. “Confrontation is not bad,” he once reflected. “Goodness is supposed to confront evil.”

Steve Jobs was as famous for being obnoxious as he was for being brilliant. That brilliance resulted in credit for him as “co-inventor” on over a hundred high-tech patents. Jobs was the “idea guy” in an industry filled with other highly educated, dazzling intellects. He pushed his designers and engineers to create products whose final use only he could fully envision. He often said he was as proud of his decisions to scrap products as his decision to champion his successes to market. His mood swung as frequently and broadly as his decisions.

When he announced his resignation as Apple CEO earlier this year, journalist Joe Nocera penned an appreciation in the New York Times that, in addition to numerous glowing accolades, described Jobs as “arrogant, sarcastic . . . paranoid . . . He was not a consensus-builder but a dictator who listened mainly to his own intuition. He was a maniacal micromanager . . . He could be absolutely brutal in meetings.”

Les Chapman, a New Zealand engineer who worked at Apple in the late 1970s and early 1980s, agrees Jobs was a “difficult bugger to work with.” A 2008 profile of Jobs by CNN-Money natters, “He oozes smug superiority . . . No CEO is more willful, or more brazen, at making his own rules, in ways both good and bad.”

Stanford Management Science Professor Robert Sutton, who discusses Jobs in his 2007 book, The No Asshole Rule, contends, “The degree to which people in Silicon Valley are afraid of Jobs is unbelievable. He made people feel terrible; he made people cry.”

Another portrait of Jobs, this one in Fortune magazine, suggests fear of him was prevalent inside Apple as well, quoting employees who understandably wished to remain anonymous. “No one greets him or says hi to him . . . I remember him walking around the campus one time and groups of people in his way would just split and let him walk through . . . Employees are careful what they do. They know some mistakes are not forgivable.”

Shuttlesworth and Jobs not only survived but flourished despite their infuriating manners for several important reasons. They had phenomenal instincts and an annoying tendency to be on the right side of important arguments. They had a kind of charisma that won them loyalty from some even as it won them resentment from others and drove still others away. Most important, they were not just highly competent leaders but game-changers, capable of transforming their respective fields and bringing glory not only to themselves but also to those around them.

Shuttlesworth’s insistence on confrontation in Birmingham certainly helped reduce the violence suffered by young black demonstrators in that city. However, its images of water hoses, attack dogs, and riot stick beatings provided graphic illustrations of just how terrible Jim Crow law enforcement could be. King’s arrest and jailing led him to compose his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. While King’s reputation already flourished, this essay helped crystallize his message and defined the entire civil rights movement.

Jobs’s designs for Apple II and Macintosh pushed the ideas that personal computers should be powerful but also affordable and easy to use. He continued that work with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, forcing ever-widening connectivity into ever-shrinking, flexible devices. He also managed to revolutionize the music recording, publishing, telecommunications, and Internet industries along the way. He launched a series of successful films as head of Pixar Studios that helped drive the entire movie industry away from scale modeling, makeup, and other traditional special effects and toward highly realistic computer animation.

In light of this, it is understandable why so many tolerated and even venerated two such petulant characters. Palo Alto venture capitalist Jean-Louis Gasse, a former Apple executive, once observed about Jobs, “Democracies don't make great products. You need a competent tyrant.” This seems true of Shuttlesworth in his field too.

Jobs and Shuttlesworth were two tyrants of goodness. They never set out principally to offend; they just did not care if it was a by-product of their true intentions, which was to make the world a better place. They both succeeded in their missions.

I shudder at a world in which every leader was like Shuttlesworth and Jobs. Consensus building and compromise are still the way modern society gets the thing done. Few of us do our best when operating constantly outside of our comfort zones.

On the other hand, these two recently departed leaders remind us that sometimes the system works best when we allow the occasional irascible iconoclast to go around it. The results Jobs and Shuttlesworth achieved came at a price but mostly to themselves and, in the right doses, a price worth paying by the rest of us for the advances they provided. They will be missed. Good assholes are not easily found.


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