Steve Jobs
by Walter Isaacson

ISBN: 978 1 4087 0374 8 Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2011)
Reviewed by: Julie Garland McLellan*

Could your board cope with a stellar CEO who paid himself only one dollar a year but demanded they give him 'option mega grants' and an aeroplane? How would you handle a CEO who, upon being invited into the role demanded that all board members resign and that he, alone, pick and appoint replacements? What would you do if you discovered that your CEO had asked a job applicant irrelevant questions including when they had lost their virginity?

Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs is a disturbing read for any director who aspires to good governance. It features a hero who recasts the rules to suit the circumstances, parking a car (with no number plates) in disabled spaces, insulting and pressuring people, disrupting schedules and personally controlling minute details. It also describes the step by step journey to building the world's most valuable company.

There were obviously many occasions when it all could have gone very wrong. It is not clear if these occasions were identified in advance and managed in a planned way. This raises some interesting questions. Given the ability to create extreme wealth for shareholders what is an appropriate level of risk and how should the board hold the CEO accountable for maintaining just that level and no more?

When a CEO is personally so strongly associated with a company as to be almost synonymous with it, is board governance an appropriate model? If it isn't then how are the rights of capital providers protected?

The corporation was never designed as a vessel for individual genius; it is designed for collaborative enterprise and shared risk-taking. Steve Jobs was irreplaceable, irrepressible and unpredictable. The story of how one man could build a world beating company in one generation through little more than imagination and a refusal to compromise is breath-taking.

Setting aside concerns around the control of a genius within an organisation this book is still a disturbing read. Steve Jobs was obviously an exceptional person. Even people who had never had (or wished for) an Apple product were saddened by his death; many of his more fervent followers felt truly bereft. This book paints a picture of the man behind the legend and subtly projects the legend. Not all is easy reading for those who would prefer their heroes without feet of clay but all rings true in a coherent whole that manages to uplift and entertain whilst informing.

The editing is superb and the writing crystal clear. Myriad voices paint a picture of Steve in their own words without the text appearing disjointed. Themes overlap without overly disrupting the chronological flow. The whole is a beautifully crafted homage to a man who has shaped our world and whose influence, whilst possibly not yet fully understood, is very definitely felt.

There is little sentimentality and much emotion in the story. The narrative finds a balance between dispassionate reporting and subjective invention with no sacrifice of creativity or ease of assimilation. It is huge and deeply satisfying on every level of readership. This book is thoroughly recommended as an insight to a complex character but not as a model for emulation.

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* Julie Garland McLellan is a professional non-executive director, board and governance consultant and mentor. She is the author of "Presenting to Boards", Dilemmas, Dilemmas: Practical Case Studies for Company Directors, "The Director's Dilemma", "All Above Board: Great Governance for the Government Sector" and numerous articles on corporate strategy and governance.

Julie Garland McLellan to judge 2011 Global eBook Awards