The Beatles were four of Steve Jobs’ favorite musicians; perhaps only Bob Dylan could rank higher. Jobs confirmed this fact at the end of the famous 2007 All Things D Steve Jobs/Bill Gates interview stating, “I live my live though either a Beatles or a Bob Dylan song” (1 or 1a). It was one of his life’s works, despite all the legal turmoil he experienced with Apple Corps (the music publishing arm of the Beatles), to finally get the Beatles on iTunes in 2010. Yes, the Beatles were a passion of Steve Jobs; so much so that on more than one occasion, he likened his management philosophy to that of the Beatles. While he was right about so many things throughout his career, Steve Jobs was wrong about the Beatles.
The following paragraphs will first outline Steve Jobs’ management philosophy and then detail two fatal flaws in his Beatles worldview. The article will conclude with a glimpse into Jobs’ true intent with his “brutally frank” nature and how Apple has adjusted in the post-Jobs era under Tim Cook’s leadership.
Steve Jobs’ Beatles Management Philosophy
Perhaps the best exemplar of Steve Jobs’ Beatles management philosophy was expressed during a 2003 60 Minutes interview (2). In brief, Jobs said:
“My model of business is the Beatles. They were four very talented guys who kept their negative tendencies relatively in check. They balanced each other and the total was greater than sum of its parts. And that’s how I see business. Great things in business are never done by one person; they are done by a team of people and we’ve got that here at Pixar and we’ve got that at Apple as well. So that’s what lets me do this. Well you know, when the Beatles were together, they did truly brilliant innovative work and when they split up, they did good work but it was never the same. And I see business that way too. It’s really always a team.”
Jobs was a master storyteller as any of his keynotes or the 2006 Stanford graduation speech will attest. Many of his stories had reoccurring themes, although Jobs often retold these parables with slight variations. In 2004, Jobs’ Beatles management philosophy resurfaced in an interview with Fast Company journalist Brent Schlender (3):
“My model of management is the Beatles. The reason I say that is because each of the key people in the Beatles kept the others from going off in the directions of their bad tendencies. They sort of kept each other in check. And then when they split up, they never did anything as good. It was the chemistry of a small group of people, and that chemistry was greater than the sum of the parts. And so John kept Paul from being a teenybopper and Paul kept John from drifting out into the cosmos, and it was magic. And George, in the end, I think provided a tremendous amount of soul to the group. I don’t know what Ringo did.”
While Ringo may have got short-changed in this version of the story, one can see some common themes in Jobs’ Beatles metaphor. First, the team is stronger than the individual as the sum is greater than the parts. Second, individuals may have bad tendencies and there is a need for those negative tendencies to be kept “in check.”
The most interesting variant, as well as, the most unique, can be found in Robert X. Cringely’s 1995 “Lost Interview” (4). After a back and forth conversation on product development and the evolution of an initial concept to final product, Jobs says:
“…when I was a little kid, there was a widowed man that lived up the street and he was in his 80s and he was a little scary looking and I got to know him a little bit – I think he might have paid me to mow his lawn or something. One day he said, “Come into my garage I want to show you something.” He pulled out this dusty old rock tumbler with a motor and a coffee can and a band between them and he said, “Come out with me.” We went out to the back (yard) got some rocks – some regular old ugly rocks. And we put them in the can with a little bit of liquid and a little bit of grit powder and he closed this can up and turned this motor on and he said, “Come back tomorrow” and this can was making a racket while the stones were (banging around).
I came back the next day and we opened the can and we took out some amazingly beautiful polished rocks. The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing up against each other, creating a little bit of friction, creating a little bit of noise, had come out these beautiful polished rocks. And that has always been my metaphor for a team working really hard on something that they are passionate about. That it is through the team, through that group of incredibly talented people bumping up against each other having arguments, having fights sometimes and making noise, and working together they polish each other and they polish the ideas and what comes out are these really beautiful stones.”
Even in this early version of Jobs’ Beatles management philosophy, some common themes reoccur; team over the individual, the sum is greater than the parts, and there needs to be some tension or conflict to achieve the best result.
Two Fatal Flaws
There are two fatal flaws in Steve Jobs’ Beatles management philosophy: first, Jobs only viewed the Beatles from a fan’s perspective, that is, looking from the outside in. The second fatal flaw is that “keeping each other in check” can equates to… “It’s OK to be an asshole to other people.” Each of these fatal flaws will be discussed in turn.
The opposite perspective of outside in, is naturally, the inside looking out and even a causal Beatles historian would say that keeping each other “in check” or the existence of a “healthy tension” among the “Fab 4” would be a gross understatement, particularly in their later years. In a Jobsian worldview, strong tension, heated discussion, and/or multiple disagreements among the leadership team would eventually produce a result that would be significantly better than if everyone had just sat around and blindly agreed with each other. The Beatles did have a healthy tension during their earlier albums, particularly between John and Paul, but that tension went unchecked, turned toxic, and eventually stifled collaboration among the four Beatles leading to the band’s break up.
Once the Beatles grew beyond their chart-topping, pop-friendly albums, the boys from Liverpool created three albums, namely Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper that can easily be described as “greater than the sum of its parts.” In other words, at this time in the band’s history, the Beatles were still collaborating as a team and it was rare to have a song completely dominated by one member of the band. At that time, there was a healthy collaborative tension and the Beatles pushed each other to create the most cutting edge music in their field.
Unfortunately for the fans, the health tension did not last, turned toxic and the Beatles stopped working as a team. While Pepper can be listed in the “the sum is greater than its parts” category, the landmark album represented a turning point in the history of the Beatles. In multiple interviews describing the milestone album, George and Ringo confessed that their involvement was not the same as previous Beatles works. In other words, Paul’s or John’s individual dominance, as well as the tipping point from healthy tension to unhealthy tension, was the beginning of the end.
Post Pepper, that period (the critical misstep of the Magical Mystery Tour EP & Film, The White Album, Yellow Submarine, Let It Be, and Abby Road) can be characterized, as the parts are greater than the whole. During this time in the band’s history, it was rare for the band to create a song together. Rather, it was much more common to have individual band members write and record songs and lobby to get them on the record. Despite their team enhancing “corporate retreat” to Rishikesh, of which most of the White Album was produced during this time, the lads soon fell into old habits of back-biting and snarking each other’s work. At one point during the production of the White Album, producer Sir George Martin recalled, “I remember having three studios operating at the same time. Paul was doing some overdubs in one. John was in another, and I was recording some horns…in a third” (5).
During the White Album sessions, a famous story in Beatles lore perfectly illustrates the parts are greater than the whole argument. George was so upset with John and Paul after a 14-hour session where they half-heartily played on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” that he asked Eric Clapton to play on the track. Clapton recalls, that he knew the other Beatles “wouldn’t like it” but George insisted stating, “It’s nothing to do with them. It’s my song, and I’d like you to play on it.” (5).
Please understand, some of the most beloved songs by the Beatles occurred during this later time period. In reality, however, these were not really Beatles songs but rather a Paul, or John or George song completed with the world’s best backing band. Jobs’ management philosophy emphasizes the team over the individual, yet for the latter half of the Beatles existence, there was no team; the tension and the infighting were too strong for that to happen. No one was able to keep each other in check, their negative tendencies were not balanced out and only Paul wanted the band stay together. With the inside out view of the band, Jobs’ Beatles management philosophy does not hold.
Jobs second fatal flaw is well documented, as it was not uncommon for Steve to verbally cut someone down (6). This second fatal flaw in his Beatles management philosophy is that “keeping each other in check” equates to… it’s OK to be an asshole to other people. Jobs was famous for his brutal honesty which we know he used for effect to add some grit power into a conversation. In the authorized biography, Walter Isaacson gave Jobs the last word at the very end of the book. In his commentary, Jobs called his brutal honesty “the price of admission” (7):
“I don’t think I run roughshod over people, but if something sucks, I tell it to their face. It’s my job to be honest. I know what I’m talking about, and I am usually turn out to be right. That’s the culture I tried to create. We are brutally honest with each other, and anyone can tell me they think I am full of shit and I can tell them the same. And we’ve had some rip-roaring arguments, where we are yelling at each other, and it’s some of the best of times I’ve ever had. I feel totally comfortable saying “Ron that store looks like shit” in front of everyone else. Or I might say, “God, we really fucked up the engineering on this” in front of the person that’s responsible. That’s the ante for being in the room: You’ve got to be able to be super honest. Maybe there’s a better way, a gentelmen’s club where we all wear ties and speak in the Brahmin language and velvet-coded words, but I don’t know that way because I am middle-class from California (page 567).
Perhaps it was Jobs’ outside in view of the Beatles that formed his brutal honest equals to being an asshole view of dealing with people. He was a big Beatles fan had to be aware of the conflict among the Fab 4. As a passionate fan, however, Jobs could have mistaken that the reason the band created such amazing music was because of the tension or the forceful nudging of each other; they kept each other in check.
I could not disagree more on this point. I believe in honesty and I believe in being direct, but at no point do I believe anyone has to belligerent to get one’s point across. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, perhaps Dr. Maya Angelou said it best (8):
“I know there are people who say, I’m brutality frank. Well, one doesn’t have to be brutal about anything. One can tell the truth and tell it in such a way that the listener hears it and really welcomes it.”
A plausible theory is that the Jobsian brutal honesty was more a management tactic than pure personality. To further emphasize this point, a recent 60 Minutes interview with David Kelly, founder of IDEO and dear friend of Steve Jobs touched on this issue (9). In the interview, Charlie Rose asked:
“What is the biggest misconception about him?”
And Kelly responded:
“I think the misconception about him was…he was kind of malicious. He was not trying to be mean to people. It wasn’t…he was just trying to get things done. And you just had to learn to react to that.”
Apple in the Post-Jobs Era
As an academic interested in leadership, I have been studying Apple for the better part of two decades. I believe that Kelly’s assessment is the more accurate picture of Jobs. That said, I am not so sure Jobs understood the downside effect of this tactic. In other words, as with the Beatles, brutal honesty could break up the band. Tim Cook has the same view as David Kelly and learned to translate Jobs’ brutal honesty. In a handful of times in the authorized biography, but particularly when Jobs returned from the Liver transplant, Cook often called Jobs’ brutal honestly “his passion” and attributed it to Jobs always striving for the best. On his first day back from second major medical leave, Jobs called a meeting and ripped into the upper management team. As described by Isaacson (7):
“But was truly telling was the pronouncement he made to a couple of friends late that afternoon. ‘I had the greatest time being back today, he said. “I can’t believe how creative I’m feeling, and how the whole team is.” Tim Cook took it in stride. ‘I’ve never seen Steve hold back from expressing his view or passion,” he later said. “But that was good.” (489)
The Apple of today does not operate in the Beatles management philosophy; that was Steve’s mental model, not Tim’s (10). Over the past 18 months but particularly in October 2012 when Apple and Scott Forestall parted ways, Tim Cook has been striving for more honesty and less brutality. Forestall is a brilliant engineer and was one of the key architects of Apple’s iOS mobile operating system, yet Forestall (sometimes called mini-Steve) was more interested in politics, power and fiefdoms. Since iOS powered devices are responsible for over 80 percent of Apple’s revenues, Forestall felt he was more important than the team (i.e., the parts are greater than the whole). Other influential managers, by their actions, indirectly confirmed Forestall’s worldview. For instance, Bob Mansfield unexpectantly retired in early 2012 then un-retired to another senior manager role once Forestall was ousted. Jony Ive did not want to be in the same room nor work with Forestall. In a Jobsian worldview, Forestall was the tension, the grit powder that Jobs believed would eventually result in a better song. Cook sacrificed Forestall for the sake of the team, as the tension was unhealthy, unchecked and holding Apple back from its next stage of new songs.
I am optimistic on Apple’s future, as I believe Cook is unafraid of ghost of Steve Jobs. While Forestall’s ousting was clearly a major indicator of Tim’s willingness to do what is best for the future of Apple, it is also a major indicator that Tim does not envision himself as just the torch carrier of Apple’s past. Beyond the October 2012 senior management shakeup, there are other indicators as well such as, Apple’s corporate social responsibility in China, the disbursement of dividends, taking on debt, and charitable giving just to name a few. Cook knows the Apple of the past cannot be the growth engine of the Apple of the future. If the rapid and radical update to iOS 7 is any indicator, I am optimistic that Apple will not be resting on its laurels in the Tim Cook era; Cook wants the tension to be healthy, the collaboration among the band leaders to be strong, and most important, the songs to be amazing for years to come.
Associate Professor of Marketing
Stillman School of Business
Seton Hall University