This was not without causing misunderstanding, even anger, among Apple’s developer community. But he did not duck anything, he took responsibility for everything.
In 1997, on stage at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, Jobs was holding a Q&A session when one audience member stood up and threw the following question:
« Mr. Jobs, you are a bright and influential man« … the audience laughed. The audience understood that the knives had been pulled, and that the blade was about to be thrust. Jobs was of course the first one to understand it: « Here it comes » he replied, ready to take the hit.
« It is sad and clear that on several counts you’ve discussed, you don’t know what you are talking about [Audience laughter]. I would like for example for you to express in clear terms how, say, Java and any of its incarnations addresses the ideas embodied in OpenDoc. And when you’re finished with that, perhaps you can tell us what you personally have been doing for the last seven years”.
A whisper ran through the audience, under the shock of the aggressive statement, even insult. It couldn’t be clearer. Someone said « Ouch… ». Jobs clearly hadn’t spent the last 7 years at Apple. 7 seconds passed. It was a tough one, but Jobs was ready to answer.
This answer is remembered as an illustration of Jobs’ qualities as a strategist and a visionary CEO. The iconic boss knew where he was going. And he was not impressed by anything or anyone. He was tough. He wasn’t easy-going and he knew how to make a decision. This is undoubtedly an essential quality for a leader. And Jobs was much more than that, he was a genius in his industry.
Jobs didn’t just give out a management lesson. He truly delivered a masterclass in the art of communicating. Why and how?
« You know, you can please some of the people some of the time, but…” One of the hardest things when you are trying to effect change is that people like this gentleman are right in some areas”.
From the outset, Jobs escaped the temptation of symmetrical escalation, not without carrying a well-scented reciprocal blow. Telling his accuser that he may be right is obviously ironic. As we know, in the explicit, there is implicit. To the implicit accusation that Jobs was not there to appreciate the program he decided to end, Jobs responds with an even stronger implicit, which can be deciphered as « you would be right, if you could accept – and therefore understand, change – but you do not understand it ».
Jobs then acknowledged that there were many things, at the stage where he was expressing himself, that OpenDoc could do much better than any other program, and that he himself did not fully master the question. By taking a low position, he cancels and ridicules the high position taken by his interlocutor. Even better, by apologizing for OpenDoc being part of the collateral damage of his strategy, he takes control.
And it is as a master of communication that he continues, not by arguing, not by defending himself, but by changing the logical level of his demonstration, to take it to a higher level, a level of metacommunication: from an attack on a decision, we move on to a level of communication where this decision takes on a visionary meaning, much broader than a simple technical decision.
« The hardest thing is: how does that fit in to a cohesive, larger vision (…) And, one of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. And I made that mistake probably more than anyone else in this room. And I got the scar tissue to prove it « ….
Jobs changes the nature of the interaction sought by the person who attacked him. Changing the content changes the nature of the relationship. There is no longer an attacked person or an attacker, there is a person who has not understood anything about change and a boss who has a much greater vision, even when that involves acknowledging his mistakes. One should notice on both sides the strong implicit messages contained in explicit messages of different levels, but which respond to each other in the most accurate way possible. Jobs has not missed any of the implicit messages, and by raising the content of his answer to a higher level, he is changing the relationship with that person, and probably with his entire audience. And he raises himself to another level.
« Mistakes will be made, some people will be pissed off, some people will not know what they are talking about, but I think it is so much better than where things were not very long ago. And I think we are going to get there” concludes Steve Jobs. We know the rest of the story, and the subsequent success of the company.
Whispering in the ears of horses is a language, an art. The art of controlling an animal that is much stronger and more powerful than you are. The art of developing a relationship, at first sight unequal, for the animal is much more powerful than the human being. You should never scream in front of a horse. Whispering allows for much more effective communication, and a much more comfortable relationship.
The man who whispered in the ear of his engineers knew that cries only muffle those who scream, and that insults only affect those who utter them.
View the conference on