Steve Jobs Had Moderately Low Emotional Intelligence
Updated: Jun 19
I thought this might be an interesting case study. I’ve come across many articles where writers (both lay and scholars) have stated that they believe Steve Jobs had high emotional intelligence (EQ).
Let’s start by defining emotional intelligence:
Emotional intelligence is the “ability to perceive and express emotion, assimilate emotion in thought, understand and reason with emotion, and regulate emotion in the self and others” (Mayer, Salovey, Caruso, & Cherkasskiy, 2011, p. 532).
Emotional intelligence is “a set of emotional and social skills that influence the way we perceive and express ourselves, develop and maintain social relationships, cope with challenges, and use emotional information in an effective and meaningful way” (Multi-Health Systems, 2011).
Here’s my position: Steve Jobs’ emotional intelligence was very unbalanced, so much so that I believe his overall EQ score was moderately low to moderate.
In this article, I have included extensive passages, statements, and stories and quoted them verbatim from the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson as well as from a few other sources to support my viewpoint. This is done intentionally as rewording or paraphrasing would dilute the writings and storytelling and I didn’t want to do that.
There’s no doubt that Steve Jobs was a visionary genius who, over three decades, brought some incredible products (e.g., Apple II, Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, iPad, and many others) to market, and who transformed entire industries (Isaacson, 2011).
While he was very effective in some leadership areas, he was extremely lacking in others. Therefore, I would argue that Steve Jobs had a very unbalanced emotional intelligence which contributed to his moderately low overall emotional intelligence.
I will use the Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i) 2.0. The EQ-i 2.0 measures emotional intelligence. More specifically, the EQ-i 2.0 measures a set of emotional and social skills that influence the way individuals: (1) perceive and express themselves, (2) develop and maintain social relationships, (3) cope with challenges, and (4) use emotional information in an effective and meaningful way.
The EQ-i 2.0 is made up of 5 composites: Self-Perception, Self-Expression, Interpersonal, Decision Making, and Stress Management. Each of the composites contains 3 subscales.
Self-Perception: Self-Regard, Self-Actualization, Emotional Self-Awareness
Self-Expression: Emotional Expression, Assertiveness, Independence
Interpersonal: Interpersonal Relationships, Empathy, Social Responsibility
Decision Making: Problem Solving, Reality Testing, Impulse Control
Stress Management: Flexibility, Stress Tolerance, Optimism
If we’re going by the EQ-i 2.0 and its 15 subscales, Jobs had extremely high self-regard, self-actualization, and self-awareness. He was also very assertive and optimistic.
However, a strength overdone or overused can become a weakness. In FYI: For Your Improvement (a guide for coaching and development), Lombardo and Eichinger (2000) cautioned that, “Sometimes a strength used to extreme turns into a weakness” (p. vi).
Too much Self-Regard can be or look/sound:
Vain & conceited
Burdensome with thoughts of superiority
Too much Self-Actualization can be or look/sound:
Perpetually dissatisfied with the status quo
Overly goal-driven—too intense
Overly exuberant with your activities and points of passion
Self-centered—blind to the needs and interests of others
Too much Emotional Self-Awareness can be or look/sound:
Self-consumed—seeing things unrelated to you only through your own emotional filters
Self-centered and self-indulgent
Hypersensitive to your own emotions
Insensitive to others’ needs
Too much Assertiveness can be or look/sound:
Militant or bossy
Self-centered (commanding the spotlight and excessive air-time)
Too much Optimism can be or look/sound:
Blind to reality and danger
Prone to viewing bright sides and opportunities that do not actually exist
Known to let an unrealistic belief in a positive outcome take the place of effort
On the opposite end, Jobs had very low interpersonal relationships, low empathy, low impulse control (even describing himself as “mercurial”), low flexibility, and low reality testing.
Low Interpersonal Relationships can be or look/sound:
Cold and unfriendly
Hard to like or get to know
Low Empathy can be or look/sound:
Uncompassionate, unfeeling, or inhumane
Emotionally detached or distant
Selfish and self-centered
Low Impulse Control can be or look/sound:
Lacking in self-control
Overly talkative—monopolizing conversations
Short fused, quick to anger
Low Flexibility can be or look/sound:
Rigid in your thinking
Set in your ways and opinions
Slow to start new project or efforts
Low Reality Testing can be or look/sound:
Unrealistic and overly dramatic
Impractical & untrustworthy
Dishonest—prone to exaggeration
For Steve Jobs, his Emotional Expression was much higher than his Empathy. He focused much more (almost exclusively) on the expression of his emotions, thoughts, and feelings than on being empathic toward others. Balancing these facets required that Jobs listened carefully to the ideas of others and be attentive to their feelings. Because these facets were often out of balance, Jobs was never able to gauge whether the intensity and timing of his expression was appropriate for the situation.
Job’s Assertiveness was also quite high compared to his low Empathy score. Because these scores were out of balance, people viewed and experienced him and his behaviors as abrasive.
Finally, another area where Jobs’ emotional intelligence was out of balance was related to his low Empathy and high Emotional Self-Awareness. This meant that although he understood how he felt about a particular situation, he had the tendency to not spend enough time uncovering how others felt.
Steve Jobs used the handicap parking space as his own personal parking spot (Isaacson, 2011). He frequently berated and yelled at others and threw temper tantrums. He also tended to distort reality and was well-known for his reality distortion field (“He has his own way with the truth” [Isaacson, 2011, p. 185]). It was the key people in his life who helped to soften his unpleasant treatments of others as well as soothe his volatile behaviors.
For his Steve Jobs biography, Walter Isaacson conducted more than forty interviews with Jobs over two years. Isaacson also interviewed more than a hundred family members, friends, adversaries, competitors, and colleagues of Steve Jobs.
Here are some passages from Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography:
“Ann Bowers became an expert at dealing with Jobs’s perfectionism, petulance, and prickliness. She had been the human resources director at Intel, but had stepped aside after she married its cofounder Bob Noyce. She joined Apple in 1980 and served as a calming mother figure who would step in after one of Jobs’s tantrums. She would go to his office, shut the door, and gently lecture him. “I know, I know,” he would say. “Well, then, please stop doing it,” she would insist. Bowers recalled, “He would be good for a while, and then a week or so later I would get a call again.” She realized that he could barely contain himself. “He had these huge expectations, and if people didn’t deliver, he couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t control himself. I could understand why Steve would get upset, and he was usually right, but it had a hurtful effect. It created a fear factor. He was self-aware, but that didn’t always modify his behavior”” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 121).
“[Steve Jobs] had always been temperamental and bratty. At Atari his behavior had caused him to be banished to the night shift, but at Apple that was not possible. “He became increasingly tyrannical and sharp in his criticism,” according to Markkula [the first big Apple investor; also a father figure to Jobs]. “He would tell people, ‘That design looks like shit.’” He was particularly rough on Wozniak’s young programmers, Randy Wigginton and Chris Espinosa. “Steve would come in, take a quick look at what I had done, and tell me it was shit without having any idea what it was or why I had done it,” said Wigginton, who was just out of high school” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 81-82).
Many people who worked at Apple “were afraid of Jobs “because of his spontaneous temper tantrums and his proclivity to tell everyone exactly what he thought, which often wasn’t very favorable”” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 113).
Jobs never apologized for treating people, especially those around him and people who worked for him, poorly. He thought it was his “job to be honest” because “I know what I’m talking about, and I usually turn out to be right” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 569).
There’s a useful Management Blind Spots Self-Evaluation created by Michael Timms of Avail Leadership. Out of the 15 common undesirable management tendencies (and their associated behaviors), Jobs easily checked off 13 of the 15 undesirable management tendencies!
Fail to Develop Others
Provide Unclear Direction
Demanding Taskmaster* (Timms used the term “Slave Driver,” but I renamed it)
“Research has shown that people are five times more sensitive to their manager’s unconscious negative actions than to their manager’s efforts to motivate them. In other words, much of what managers do to motivate their staff is being undone by their thoughtless negative actions” (Timms, 2016).
The reason why people tolerated Jobs was because they “realized that despite his temperamental failings, Jobs had the charisma and corporate clout that would lead them to “make a dent in the universe”” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 112).
And to be very clear, Steve Jobs was successful despite his moderately low emotional intelligence because he had people around him [like Joanna Hoffman (his right-hand woman), Ann Bowers and her husband Bob Noyce (who were surrogate parents to Jobs) and Laurene Powell Jobs (his wife)] who had a strong, commanding, and/or calming influence on Jobs and who kept him in line.
Isaacson described Laurene Powell in this manner: “Smart, yet unpretentious. Tough enough to stand up to him, yet Zen-like enough to rise above turmoil. Well-educated and independent, yet ready to make accommodations for him and a family. Down-to-earth, but with a touch of the ethereal. Savvy enough to know how to manage him, but secure enough to not always need to” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 267).
According to Joanna Hoffman, one of Steve Jobs’ right hand woman, Jobs can be very obnoxious because he thinks he can “get away with anything” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 184). While on a business trip in Italy, he became so nasty and was so mean to the waiter at a restaurant that Hoffman threatened that if Jobs didn’t calm down that she would pour hot coffee on him (Isaacson, 2011).
Apple’s manager in France, Jean-Louis Gassée said this about Steve Jobs: “The only way to deal with him was to out-bully him” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 185). “I remember grabbing his lapel and telling him to stop, and then he backed down. I used to be an angry man myself. I am a recovering assaholic. So I could recognize that in Steve” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 185).
Andy Hertzfeld, who worked with Steve Jobs at Apple in the early 1980s said: “The key question about Steve is why he can’t control himself at times from being so reflexively cruel and harmful to some people” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 5).
This part aptly summarizes Steve Jobs as a leader:
“There were some upsides to Jobs’s demanding and wounding behavior. People who were not crushed ended up being stronger. They did better work, out of both fear and an eagerness to please” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 121).
“Was all of his stormy and abusive behavior necessary? Probably not, nor was it justified. There were other ways to have motivated his team. Even though the Macintosh would turn out to be great, it was way behind schedule and way over budget because of Jobs’s impetuous interventions. There was also a cost in brutalized human feelings, which caused much of the team to burn out” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 123-124).
When Walter Isaacson, the biographer, asked Jobs: “Why are you sometimes so mean?” Jobs replied, “This is who I am, and you can’t expect me to be someone I’m not” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 565).
What Ann Bowers said about Steve Jobs is my main argument for why I believe Steve Jobs’ emotional intelligence is moderately low: that although he was very self-aware (i.e., he knew exactly what he was doing), he really didn’t care how he acted or treated others.
Walter Isaacson, who interviewed Jobs extensively and interviewed many of his friends, colleagues, and family for the Steve Jobs biography, concluded that Jobs “could have controlled himself, if he had wanted. When he hurt people, it was not because he was lacking in emotional awareness. Quite the contrary: He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, and know how to relate to them, cajole them, or hurt them at will” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 565).
“Most people have a regulator between their mind and mouth that modulates their brutish sentiments and spikiest impulses. Not Jobs. He made a point of being brutally honest. “My job is to say when something sucks rather than sugarcoat it,” he said. This made him charismatic and inspiring, yet also, to use the technical term, an asshole at times” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 564).
These stories and descriptions do not describe a person with high emotional intelligence. On the contrary, they describe some with low emotional intelligence.
Some have claimed that emotional intelligence is “not about being nice. Rather it’s about the ability to use the right emotion at the right time to get the right result. It requires the ability to read the other person, know how far you can push their buttons, and knowing when to back off and when to persist. If it is done with good intentions, even though unpleasant at the time, the payoff can be rewarding” (Stein, 2017, p. 49).
This sounds an awful lot like people who know how to read others and then use that knowledge and skill to manipulate others into doing what they want. When you are selfish and you use your talents to manipulate others, that’s not emotional intelligence. That’s just being manipulative.
As Isaacson wrote (2011, p. 312): “Jobs could seduce and charm people at will, and he liked to do so. People such as Amelio [Apple’s CEO who brought Steve Jobs back to Apple officially in January 1997 as a part-time advisor] and Sculley [Pepsi executive recruited by Jobs in 1983 to be Apple’s CEO; he clashed with and ousted Jobs in 1985] allowed themselves to believe that because Jobs was charming them, it meant that he liked and respected them. It was an impression that he sometimes fostered by dishing out insincere flattery to those hungry for it. But Jobs could be charming to people he hated just as easily as he could be insulting to people he liked.”
While it’s true that Steve Jobs inspired Apple employees to create ground-breaking products and instilled in them a belief that they could do what seemed impossible at times, the result was that many people experienced burnout and left. Those who worked for and/or with Jobs stated that it was one of the most stressful times of their lives.
Even Jony Ive admitted this about Steve Jobs:
“He has this very childish ability to get really worked up about something, and it doesn’t stay with him at all. But there are other times, I think honestly, when he’s very frustrated, and his way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody. And I think he feels he has a liberty and a license to do that. The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don’t apply to him. Because of how very sensitive he is, he knows exactly how to efficiently and effectively hurt someone. And he does do that” (Isaacson, 2011, p. 462).
A Wired article talked about a reunion of former Apple employees. More than 1,300 ex-Apple employees showed up. Not surprisingly, many people shared stories about Steve Jobs as a demanding and hot-tempered leader. “Everyone has their Steve-Jobs-the-asshole story,” one of the attendees said (Kahney, 2003). “Everyone dreads getting caught in an elevator with him,” said another attendee (Kahney, 2003).
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said that Steve Jobs drove away some of Apple’s most talented employees (Bauter, 2014; Gibbs, 2014):
“Some of my very best friends in Apple, the most creative people in Apple who worked on the Macintosh, almost all of them said they would never, ever work for Steve Jobs again,” said Wozniak in an interview with the Milwaukee Business Journal. “It was that bad.”
Katie Savchuk (2019) wrote that narcissistic CEOs weaken collaboration and integrity, and while some may be bold leaders, they nevertheless create a dangerous corporate culture. “Success for such leaders is often attributed to their bold vision, extreme self-confidence, and determination to win at all costs. Less palatable qualities of the narcissistic personality type — including entitlement, hostility when challenged, and a willingness to manipulate — are seen as part of the package,” writes Savchuk.
Having high emotional intelligence does not mean being manipulative, mistreating others, deriving pleasure from hurting others, or justifying your own bad behaviors.
In an influential article that became the hallmark of the emotional intelligence theory, professors Peter Salovey and John Mayer (1990) wrote:
“The person with emotional intelligence can be thought of as having attained at least a limited form of positive mental health. These individuals are aware of their own feelings and those of others. They are open to positive and negative aspects of internal experience, are able to label them, and when appropriate, communicate them. Such awareness will often lead to the effective regulation of affect within themselves and others, and so contribute to well being. Thus, the emotionally intelligent person is often a pleasure to be around and leaves others feeling better” (Salovey & Mayer, 1990, p. 201).
Therefore, a person who is “smug, willful, brazen, demeaning, volatile, vindictive and manipulative” (Wasylyshyn, 2011), someone who’s a jerk, throws temper tantrums (Jobs’ temper has been described as “legendary” [Isaacson, 2011]), is childish and takes license to hurt others (Isaacson, 2011), and doesn’t care how he treats others or his “negative effects on others” (Wasylyshyn, 2011) is not a person with high overall emotional intelligence. In fact, anyone who engages in behaviors like these—regardless of being moderately emotionally intelligent or not—isn’t a very nice person.
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D. Organizational & Leadership Development Leader
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