Steve Jobs Resigns – The Failure to Disengage and Price of Workaholism


Illustration: Tsevis Visual Design and Deanna Lowe at Fortune magazine. From http://www.flickr.com/photos/tsevis/2313082920/in/set-72157594536252686

Steve Jobs, the charismatic and visionary founder of Apple Computers has resigned (August 24, 2011). Not to worry, he’s now assumed the Chairman of the Board role at Apple.

Last year, I wrote a post titled “The Dangers of Charismatic Leaders” in which I talked about Steve Jobs and the virtues and vices that characterize a charismatic leader. Well, the day has come when he’s handing over his CEO duties. As Jobs wrote in a letter to the Apple board of directors and Apple community, “I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come. I hereby resign as CEO of Apple.”

Many have written and, no doubt, will write about Apple, what will come of Apple and Mac products, and the financial implications of Steve Jobs — a charismatic and visionary leader — leaving as CEO. The Harvard Business Review even posted “Why Apple Doesn’t Need Steve Jobs.” Just so you know, I disagree with the article (as outlined in “The Dangers of Charismatic Leaders“). These quotes below from that post sum up what, I believe, we can expect to see in a post-Jobs-as-CEO Apple:

No American CEO is more intimately identified with his company’s success. Jobs is deeply involved in every facet of Apple development and design, and he’s justly admired for his instinct for the human-factor engineering of Apple products. (Hiltzik, Jan 2009)

What remains to be seen is whether a post-Jobs Apple will retain the corporate traits that made the company successful with its iconic leader at the helm. (Knowledge@Wharton)

Ultimately, some leaders are so irreplaceable that no amount of succession planning will ensure a seamless power transition. ‘In some sense, with the charismatic person, it’s difficult to prepare a successor, because they are bigger than life,’ says John Larrere, general manager at the management consultant Hay Group. (Ante & McGregor, 2009)

Ok, now let’s shift gear a bit because in this post, I want talk about the health, well-being, and the price we pay for not heeding the warning signs of being a workaholic.

Some pundits were surprised that Steve Jobs resigned, but others weren’t. I wasn’t. After a successful surgery to remove a tumor in his pancreas in 2004, he went back to work within a few months. But Jobs’ health has been declining and he looks gaunt. If we analyze this whole scenario from a workplace psychology and occupational health psychology perspective, it’s not difficult to see that Jobs’ relentless drive (whether at work or when he’s at home) and his self-sacrifices (mentioned as a virtue in my “The Dangers of Charismatic Leaders” post) have taken an exacting toll on his health and well-being.

In 2009, Jobs took another six-month medical leave and it was later revealed that he had received a liver transplant. Things “appeared” normal as he once again returned to work. But, in January 2011, Steve Jobs announced, yet again, that he was taking a medical leave. Fast forward to August 24, 2011 and the world found out, he was not coming back in his role as CEO.

In his email to Apple employees back in January 2011, Jobs wrote, “At my request, the board of directors has granted me a medical leave of absence so I can focus on my health. I will continue as CEO and be involved in major strategic decisions for the company…I love Apple so much and hope to be back as soon as I can.”

Notice the conflicting priorities – “focus on my health” and yet “I will continue as CEO and be involved…and hope to be back as soon as I can.”

There’s an interesting story on the NPR blog called “A Story About Steve Jobs And Attention To Detail” by Eyder Peralta about Steve Jobs’ attention to (I would say obsession with) detail. It’s a story that Vic Gundotra, the guy behind Google+, posted about Steve Jobs calling him in January 2008 on a Sunday. While Vic’s memory of Jobs calling him on a Sunday unhappy that the second “O” in the Google icon on the iPhone didn’t “have the right yellow gradient” was one of admiration, my interpretation is one of concern. Remember that this is only four years after his pancreatic cancer scare.

There are 3 common characteristics of workaholics (Schaufeli, Taris, & Rhenen, 2008):

  1. Workaholics spend a lot of time on work activities. They are excessively hard workers.
  2. Workaholics have a hard time disengaging from work and when they do, they continue and often think about work even when they are not working. This suggests a preoccupation and obsession with their work.
  3. Workaholics work beyond what’s reasonably expected from them to meet either the organizational or economic requirements. That is, workaholics often work excessively even if they don’t need the money.

Schaufeli, Taris, and Rhenen (2008) explained that workaholics work and push themselves extremely hard, not because of financial rewards, career drives, or even organizational culture. Instead, workaholics work hard because of an inner compulsion, need, or drive.

Shimazu, Schaufeli, and Taris (2010) discovered that workaholism is both directly and indirectly associated with poor health. The researchers found that while workaholics might contribute more to organizational performance than others, “the costs for the workaholic people themselves (in terms of ill-health) are high” (p. 158).

When a workaholic, like a Steve Jobs, is constantly obsessing about work and doesn’t know how or even want to disengage (see my post about failure to disengage) while he’s away from work (e.g., Jobs should have been resting on that Sunday as I am sure his doctors would have told him to do), the end result is that something has to give. In this case, it was his health.

I am a Mac user. I’ve been one for 9 years. I love my Mac and Apple products. I wish Steve Jobs all the best, particularly good health. But if I were him, I would not only resign as CEO, I would also not take on another role, even as a Board member. The health warning signs his body has been trying to tell him should be taken very seriously.

As I wrote back in 2009, approaching work with a 24/7 mindset “is a double-edged sword that in the end [can and does] threaten employee health and well-being” (Sonnentag et al., 2008, p. 273.)

It doesn’t take a doctor to see that Steve Jobs’ workaholic mentality is costing him his health. What a truly sad price to pay when we can’t or won’t disengage from our work.

References

Ante, S.E., & McGregor, J. (January 2009). Apple Succession Plan: Nobody’s Business? BusinessWeek. Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/jan2009/tc20090115_863327.htm

Apple. (August 2011). Letter from Steve Jobs. Retrieved from http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2011/08/24Letter-from-Steve-Jobs.html

Apple. (August 2011). Steve Jobs Resigns as CEO of Apple. Retrieved from http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2011/08/24Steve-Jobs-Resigns-as-CEO-of-Apple.html

Cheng, J. (August 2011). Steve Jobs has resigned as Apple CEO “effective immediately.” Retrieved from http://arstechnica.com/apple/news/2011/08/steve-jobs-has-resigned-as-apple-ceo-effective-immediately.ars

Gundotra, V. (April 2011). Icon Ambulance. Retrieved from https://plus.google.com/107117483540235115863/posts/gcSStkKxXTw

Hiltzik, M. (Jan 2009). Apple’s condition linked to Steve Jobs’ health. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jan/05/business/fi-hiltzik5

Knowledge@Wharton. Job-less: Steve Jobs’s Succession Plan Should Be a Top Priority for Apple. Retrieved from http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2134

Peralta, E. (August 2011). A Story About Steve Jobs And Attention To Detail. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/08/25/139947282/a-shade-of-yellow-steve-jobs-and-attention-to-detail

Schaufeli, W. B., Taris, T. W., & Van Rhenen, W. (2008). Workaholism, burnout, and work engagement: three of a kind or three different kinds of employee well-being. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 57(2), 173-203. doi:10.1111/j.1464-0597.2007.00285.x

Shimazu, A., Schaufeli, W. B., & Taris, T. W. (2010). How does workaholism affect worker health and performance? The mediating role of coping. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 17(2), 154-160, doi:10.1007/s12529-010-9077-x

Sonnentag S., Mojza, E.J., Binnewies, C., & Scholl, A. (2008). Being engaged at work and detached at home: A week-level study on work engagement, psychological detachment, and affect. Work & Stress, 22(3), 257-276.

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