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Steve Jobs and John Sculley

For Worse
Steve Jobs and John Sculley

For the last 14 years of his life, Steve Jobs performed nothing short of corporate magic: saving a floundering computer company from obscurity and building it into one of the most successful consumer products companies ever.

Now, people look back in amazement at what he built.

“In the last decade,” wrote a New York Times reporter at the news of his fall 2011 retirement, “Apple has redefined the music business through the iPod, thehe cellphone business through the iPhone and the entertainment and media world through the iPad. Again and again, Mr. Jobs has gambled that he knew what the customer would want, and again and again he has been right.”

Even more amazing is that Jobs performed this magic after having been fired from Apple in 1985, only eight years after launching the firm and taking the world by storm. Given the costs of Jobs’ 12-year exile, you have to ask: how did Steve Jobs manage to get fired from the company he founded?

As is the case in many such instances, the culprit was a breakdown in relationships at the top. Having wooed marketing genius John Sculley away from Pepsi to become Apple’s CEO, the 25-year-old charismatic Jobs and the more corporate Sculley fell in love. As Apple chronicler Frank Rose wrote of their first few months together: “For weeks they had been gazing worshipfully at each other, finishing each other’s sentences, parroting each other’s thoughts. It was as if they were on a perpetual honeymoon. . . . The two were inseparable. John was listening and learning, and the person he was learning from was Steve…. He seemed so in awe of Steve—his brashness, his charm, his charisma—that he saw everything through Steve’s eyes. … But the infatuation wasn’t one-sided. It was almost like a father-son relationship in which the two adopted each other.”

But not for long, as it turns out. A year later, as soon as Apple’s sales dropped and the firm ran into trouble, the two found themselves at odds. Under intense pressure and unable to put their differences to work, the two brought out the worst in each other: Sculley’s efforts to control Jobs making him more impulsive and uncontrollable, and Jobs’s increasingly impulsive, erratic behavior making the more measured and structured Sculley even more controlling.

After two short years, the two were convinced that one or the other had to go, and they each set out to get rid of the other. In the end, with Steve looking more and more out of control, Apple’s Board sided with Sculley, and Jobs was out. Turns out, that was a big mistake. As John Sculley himself said in a recent interview: “if Steve hadn’t come back when he did, Apple would have been history. It would have been gone, absolutely gone.”

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