The Steve Jobs FBI file: The one new thing we learned about the Apple CEO’s leadership

February 10, 2012

The FBI file on Steve Jobs was released Thursday, and it provided insight into one aspect of the Apple CEO’s leadership we didn’t already know.

But what we did learn from the file is that none of those faults kept people from recommending him for the job. What’s astonishing in the report is that each of the more than 35 people who were interviewed by the FBI—even those who “characterized Mr. Jobs as a deceptive individual” or “described his personal life as being lacking due to his narcissism or shallowness”—said they would recommend him for a government position that requires trust and confidence. 

That’s either a telling statement about what people think of government appointees (even way back in 1991, when the file was compiled) or remarkable commentary about the duality of Jobs’ personality and the power it held over the people who knew him. The same person who called Jobs shallow and narcissistic said he had “far-reaching vision.” The very individual who said Jobs had a questionable moral character and feels bitter toward him admitted he is an honest and trustworthy person. And the person who said Jobs was deceptive and not completely forthright admitted he “possesses the qualities to assume a high-level political position.”

The document is a reminder that people can see the flaws—often glaring ones—of the people who lead them, but are willing to look past them, especially when qualities such as vision, charisma and drive are in place. These rally people behind the promise of a cause, or an idea, or even simply an innovative product in a way that makes them forgive, if not forget, the less attractive aspects of a leader’s personality. This, after all, is the very reason why candidates with black marks in their personal lives aren’t immediately written off by those inspired by their ideas.

That more than 35 people would recommend Steve Jobs for a presidential appointment, despite misgivings by a number of them, says a lot about his vision and ability to inspire. Such critical commentary about major company CEOs is rarely seen in such stark printed terms, much less paired with simultaneous recommendations for presidential appointments. The FBI file on Jobs speaks to the unique dual nature of Jobs’ leadership and personality, and what prompts us all to follow those with faults.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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