Nice is Overrated

1158072_53156091One of the most impactful news stories recently was the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. As a personal fan of the Macintosh, and all its variants of the desktop computer, I credit him (and his teams) for shaping how we actually live and work. The next time you drag a file into the trash bin on your desktop – well, that’ was Apple’s creation, the famed GUI – graphic user interface. For me, my experiences with their products extend to having used them on two Mount Everest expeditions, and another 8000-metre peak expedition, When other  Windows laptops belonging to others were seizing up in the cold and high altitude, our Macs soldiered on

Early critics laughed at Apple.  In 1984, the tech reviewer of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote this: “ The new Apple Macintosh comes with an unusual pointing  device called a ‘mouse’. We don’t think this will last very long.”

This, is in part explains the worldwide tributes to the 56-year old, who died of pancreatic cancer.   I want to talk about the lessons we can learn from the flipside of Steve Jobs, or what I call the Dark Side.

Recently, articles from the Huffington Post, have painted a contrarian view of the man. In my humble opinion, we all have a Dark Side. Our success in life depends on how we manage it. Jobs himself was described by many former employees and associates as ruthless, rude, hostile, spiteful. Fortune quotes a story where he gave a half-hour dressing down of his staff. Jobs berated them:

“Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?”. He got an acceptable answer, and then continued, “So why the f**k doesn’t it do that? “You’ve tarnished Apple’s reputation,” he told them. “You should hate each other for having let each other down.” He then fired the group leader on the spot.

So here’s my take on managing this appropriately:

1) Focus on outcomes and be harsh on behaviours that don’t support this.

After all, people are in a business to achieve specific goals, and by keeping keeping criticism focused on outcomes and behaviours, you avoid upsetting people by keeping the criticism away from their personalities of personal values

2) Understand that greatness and excellence was never derived from a softly-softly approach.

Jobs knew, this, as well as any other brilliant sportsman or business leader. You need to take a robust approach, and have great laser-like clarity  in your dealings and behaviours. Sometimes, this will put off people who are less committed, less hard-working, and in short, less of everything. Being uncompromising also means you are willing to affect the quality of certain relationship to achieve your vision. Managing this fruitfully will depend on your life and professional priorities. But the clearer they are, and the more you articulate this to your people, they and you will be better off.

Are some tennis champions ‘bad boys’ for swearing and cursing?You bet. But does this detract from their excellence and  achievements. No way. Our society needs to accept that you sometime have to accept that single-mindedness can have its fallout in terms of unpleasant behaviour.

3) Be ruthless on outcomes, as well as  acknowledging failure

Remember the failed Apple product, the Newton? Hailed as a step forward, the tablet that relied on a clunky handwriting recognition software came out in 1983 was a  market failure. Jobs took the blame and moved on.  Mukul Deva, a friend of mine, is the only techno-thriller author in India. His airport bestsellers include  Tanzeem, Salim Must Die and Lashkar. He says that once a book is written and sent off to the publishers, he moves on. He doesn’t waste too much time basking in success or wallowing in failure.

When we are ruthless for outcomes, we push our people – not that we want to break them, but so that we can help them find what they are capable of. Some have a knack  of finding this out for themselves. Some have to be pushed to greatness. Jobs understood this principle very well, though he may have crossed the line a number of times in how he berated people. Not everyone you deal with is as committed as you are. You can choose to be ‘nice’ and hope for a good outcome, or you can push them, and push them hard when the situation demands. You may be surprised at the outcome.


4) Being a C-officer is not about  popularity

I’m sure many of you reading this may have fired staff in the past. It’s never an easy task, but made easier if you consider this guideline: If all the coaching and training doesn’t produce the outcomes you want with respect to a staff member, only three things can happen to resolve the impasse or lack of performance:

a) you leave,

b) they leave,

c) you fire them.

Many C-officers could be much more effective if they were brave enough to have clarity about this and fired more toxic workers. Your duty is to create a great team to get results for your shareholders and key stakeholders. Making friends is a nice bonus at the workplace. But your job is not about being popular or having friends.

Many years ago, I used to be given a dressing down in college by my English professor who hated the word ‘nice’ when I  used it in literature. To her, nice was the vaguest and weakest of descriptions of just about anything. When I die, I’d like to be described in a variety of ways: driven, motivated, decisive, compassionate, but never ever, ‘nice’.  So, get in touch with your Dark Side. Nice is overrated.


David Lim is a leadership and negotiation coach, best-selling author, and two-time Mt Everest expedition leader. Check out a free e-book segment of his latest book How Leaders Lead. Contact:


Article© David Lim, 2011