Theory of Knowledge

A unified approach to psychology and philosophy

Was Steve Jobs' Narcissism Justified?

Is it ok to be a bully if you produce brilliant products?

In what has to be one of the most read and talked about biographies of all time, Walter Isaacson's book on Steve Jobs reveals a fascinating portrait of a complex, gifted, and psychologically flawed character whose creative genius, enormous drive, and vision for infusing technology with art into an integrated functional whole ultimately led to revolutionizing six industries (personal computers, animated movies, phones, music, tablet computing, and digital publishing) and generating the most valuable company in the world (Apple).

As someone who has a developed what feels like a revolutionary new theory of knowledge for the academy but one that has not had much in the way of larger impact, I felt a sense of awe, admiration, and a more than a touch of envy as Isaacson recounted the monumental influence Jobs has had on this planet.

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And yet as a clinical psychologist (and a secure, even-tempered family man), I felt more than a touch of condemnation of and pity for Jobs and his narcissistic personality structure. Along with some fellow Psych Today Bloggers, there is no doubt in my professional judgment that Jobs met criteria for a Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). He was preoccupied with his sense of importance and his brilliance, he consistently damaged others by exploiting and bullying them and could be completely unempathetic to their feelings, he was envious of other's attention, he was arrogant and haughty, and he was controlling and manipulative.

Along with these overt characteristics, Jobs almost certainly had what many professional psychologists believe to be at the root of NPD, which is a fundamentally insecure sense of self. The idea is that people with NPD have a "pride-shame" split. At their emotional core, these individuals fear they are inferior and unlovable, and their constant displays of superiority and power are attempts to compensate for their underlying insecurities. The narcissistic split is comically brought to life in the character of Lord Farquaad in Shrek, an extremely short leader who builds a giant, phallic-like castle to compenstate.

Adopted at a young age, Jobs clearly had "abandonment issues." Moreover, an examination of his interpersonal relationships suggested a 'borderline' level of self-other functioning, meaning that his sense of himself in relationship to others was fragmented and poorly structured, and was fraught with emotionally charged conflicts that led to erratic, dramatic, and extreme relational swings. All of this suggested deep ambivalences about intimacy and dependency--and a fundamentally insecure sense of self.

But here are the basic questions I have found myself struggling with as Isaacson took me along the Jobs life story. First, was his narcissism justified? After all, his capacity to see what needed to be done and get it done has been surpassed by few individuals. Second, do the accomplished ends justify the means?

In 2008, when Fortune magazine was on the point of running a damaging article about him, Jobs summoned their managing editor to Cupertino to demand he spike the piece: "He leaned into Serwer's face and asked, 'So, you've uncovered the fact that I'm an asshole. Why is that news?'"

In addition to revealing his controlling, bullying style, the question Jobs asks can be interpreted in (at least) two ways. One interpretation is that it is well-known that many visionary leaders are hard-driving, narcissistic bullies, so it should not be news when such a leader is confirmed to have this kind of style. The second interpretation is that Jobs should be defined by the products his company produces, not by the means by which he leads people to produce them. The iMac, iPod, iPad, etc. are revolutionary products--the means by which they emerged are irrelevant. End of story.

Or is it? Jobs himself would initially have to say no. If, for example, the products were the result of stolen ideas, then that should clearly influence the consumer attitude in a negative way. Jobs' late life assault on the Android is clear about that. Thus, there is some moral standard that Jobs felt should have a meaningful impact on the consumer's sense of the produce. But if the creative force behind the product is an a-hole? Does that matter?

I am sure it did matter (and perhaps even does to this day) to the well-being of all the individuals that Jobs bullied, cajoled, shamed, and rejected. But how do we measure those values in relationship to the large scale impact of his products?

I, for one, am not sure how to answer that question. But I do think it is a foundational one for how we structure our society, and I hope we have an open conversation about it.

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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