The main point of the new business-oriented biography “Becoming Steve Jobs,” by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli is that Steve Jobs has been misrepresented. Blame Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” (2011), as the authors do, for the public perception that Jobs never outgrew the managerial style of the scheming, screaming, cheating, smelly hothead he may — may — have been in his early years. Instead, Schlender and Tetzeli say in their new book, Jobs developed a wise, mature, deliberate executive style for which he is seldom given credit, one that helped lead Apple to glorious heights.
Ordinarily, that revelation wouldn’t make waves. But a battle has broken out between these two biographies. Isaacson’s book was the officially authorized version. But Apple’s top brass has noisily endorsed “Becoming Steve Jobs” as a corrective, and Apple history can’t get much more official than that.
Writing about and interviewing a powerful person always requires making some kind of deal with the devil. Isaacson says his subject did not meddle, but his book clearly is only as personal as Jobs would allow it to be.
Meanwhile, Schlender (who has worked for Fortune and The Wall Street Journal) and Tetzeli (a former editor of Fortune, now executive editor of Fast Company) also do work that depends on access to business titans. Although he wrote this book with Tetzeli, Schlender makes himself a character in the book (and often speaks to or about Jobs using “I”).
Schlender, who began covering Jobs in 1986, makes frequent reference to their close friendship, which was surely very close indeed; he was one of the few who attended Jobs’ burial. But reporter-titan relationships, no matter how warm, have an aspect of expediency. “Becoming Steve Jobs” would have been better had it been more alert to the power games Schlender had to play. But it sounds more proud than insightful about them.
“Becoming Steve Jobs” pays major attention to a time period that the authors feel has been overlooked: the interregnum between Jobs’ two stints as head of Apple. That was the time, they think, when his impulsive, impractical younger self began giving way to a much more pragmatic visionary, better equipped to lead. Since that is so much less newsworthy than the more tabloidy aspects of his story, they present it with an air of discovery. And they have many anecdotes to flesh out that time. What they don’t have is a deep and consistent insight into what, beyond aging, was at the heart of this growth.
This book also has no clear idea of what kind of readership it’s after. So it rehashes some of the most familiar parts of Silicon Valley lore. Along the same lines, the book rehashes familiar parts of the Jobs mythology but leaves out some of the most colorful ones, from his fateful wooing of John Sculley to the fact that author Mona Simpson is his sister.
“Becoming Steve Jobs” emphasizes competition, sales and computer specs at the expense of anything beyond business. The result is a book too spotty to be a good introduction to Jobs lore.
Becoming Steve Jobs: The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart Into a Visionary Leader, by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. (447 pages; Crown Business; $30)