Steve Jobs’ authorized biography by Walter Isaacson paints a vivid picture of a man with vision, purpose and one whose single-minded focus brought us an ingenious array of beautifully designed and intuitive products.  Also apparent, to misquote Shakespeare in Othello, is that Steve Jobs was one that lov’d not wisely but too well.  He loved not people or relationships so much, but ideas, and in particular the idea of perfection.

Viewing the biography with the lens of Positive Psychology, and its Values in Action (VIA) Classification of Character Strengths and Virtues, gives us an interesting perspective on the matter.  The VIA represents a convergence of valued human strengths across culture and history and provides a useful framework for identifying, measuring, and leveraging human strengths.

The key to maximizing our strengths is employing them to the right degree – not too hot, and not too cold.  When we rely too heavily, or engage too vigorously with our strengths, we suffer from Strengths In The Red Zone, similar to those times when we press too hard on the accelerator and fishtail all over the road.   In the Red Zone, “You – at your best” becomes a caricature.

If I had to make a guess as to Steve Job’s VIA Strengths, they would be:

  • Creativity [originality, ingenuity]: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things; includes artistic achievement but is not limited to it
  • Bravery [valor]: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain; speaking up for what is right even if there is opposition; acting on convictions even if unpopular; includes physical bravery but is not limited to it
  • Perseverance [persistence, industriousness]: Finishing what one starts; persisting in a course of action in spite of obstacles; “getting it out the door”; taking pleasure in completing tasks
  • Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence [awe, wonder, elevation]: Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to 
everyday experience
  • Curiosity [interest, novelty-seeking, openness to experience]: Taking an interest in ongoing experience for its 
own sake; finding subjects and topics fascinating; exploring and discovering

He leveraged these strengths with remarkable facility.  The biography gives many examples, however, when he over-used them, leading to conflict, strained relationships and a reputation as something of a tyrant.

As coaches working with leaders with tyrannical reputations, all too often we find they credit their success to their overbearing manner.  “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs” they declare.   Our difficult task is to have them recognize that often they are succeeding in spite of these traits, not because of them.

How do we discover our character strengths?

  • Take the VIA Survey
  • The top 5 are called your Signature Strengths.  Think of times in your life when you’ve been at your best – fully engaged, with a sense of ownership and authenticity.  It’s likely that you have been leveraging those strengths with an appropriate degree of emphasis.

If, like Steve Jobs, you find yourself with Tyrannical Tendencies, you might

  • Consider times when overuse of your strengths may have gotten you into trouble – when it might have been better to dial it back a bit.  Overuse of Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence lead Steve Jobs, recovering from surgery, barely conscious and hardly able to speak, to demand a choice of five oxygen masks because he didn’t like the design of the first one offered to him.  One is compelled to ask:  Was this useful?  Did this assist in his recovery?
  • Look at your bottom 5 strengths.  How might dialing those up bit serve you?  Could you engage them slightly more?

If you have dealings with people with Tyrannical Tendencies, try to

  • Name That Strength – as we did above with Steve Jobs. What is your best guess as to their Signature, or top five strengths?   With a little practice, you can get quite good at it, and besides, it’s fun.
  • Might those values have been stomped on in some way?  Considering this possibility can help to put poor behavior in context.  People react badly when they feel their values are being violated.  Ask yourself, what might be going on with that person?  Which of those strengths is being thwarted?
  • Don’t Take It Personally – Many tyrants have a laser-like focus on their objectives.   It’s not you.  It’s that they aren’t getting what they want.  Figure out how to help them achieve it.

Knowing more about our own and others’ VIA profiles can foster greater mutual understanding, which reduces conflict and promotes cooperation.  Learning to leverage our strengths to the appropriate degree is crucial to our success as leaders, workers, parents and friends.


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