Why It's Fine To Obsess About Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs died six years ago. During his lifetime he was the subject of more than two dozen books, documentaries and feature films. And in the years since his death public curiosity has hardly diminished.

Are we obsessed with Steve Jobs? Obviously, there continues to be genuine interest in how he built and transformed Apple into one of the world's most valuable companies. But if much of that fascination comes from the cult of personality that surrounded Jobs during his life and, even now, continues after his death, do we learn anything new about his leadership?

This summer the Santa Fe Opera gave the first performances of "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs." With music by Mason Bates and libretto by Mark Campbell, this new opera dramatizes how Steve Jobs came to be such an iconic and controversial figure. According to Bates and Campbell, "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs" was conceived as a way for audiences to contemplate aspects of his leadership that haven't often been represented in the popular media. Its non-linear narrative, extensive use of projected images and a musical score that combines computer generated sounds with acoustic instruments mirrors the contradictions in his character. As Bates said in a recent NPR interview, "He was, while a very charismatic figure, quite a hard-driving boss. And his collisions with the fact that he wanted to make everything sleek and controllable — yet life is not controllable — is a fascinating topic for an opera."

For Bill Baker, editor of Association of Manufacturing Excellence's Target Magazine, who attended the premiere in Santa Fe, the opera met that ambition. "Jobs was a hero and a villain—internally-focused, my goal is my goal, no one else's goal counts. Then, as he matured, as he found out he was ill, he became more understanding of other people. All that was the evolution of Steve. I really saw that in the performance."

One can argue that the individual at the head of a company is only a part of what makes it successful or not, but outsized personalities compel us to question where the boundary between a leader and organization should begin and end.

Art does this well. Last year's film, "The Founder," starring Michael Keaton in the role of Ray Kroc, the controversial CEO of McDonalds, highlights the ethical shortcuts often taken on the road to mega-success. Opera performed live, with its stage constraints and emotional directness of music, singing and drama, has the power to go even further—to make palpable what is hard to put into words. And as corporations—with their global reach and influence—become the important institutions of our time, perhaps theater and opera can reveal aspects of their leaders that would, otherwise, be difficult to examine.

Those who knew Steve Jobs personally—his family, friends and colleagues—are aware of all the nuances of Jobs as a real human being. But for the rest of us, pondering his character, and telling and retelling his story makes it possible to learn from his wins and losses and to imagine ourselves in his place. Would we make similar decisions? See opportunities the way he did?

Steve Jobs would, no doubt, have been uncomfortable with an opera about his life, especially one which unsparingly probes his relationships and behavior. But I am certain that he would agree that technology and business are worthy subjects for the stage. One of his overriding motivations was that all human endeavors can learn from one another and that the arts, in particular, have a necessary role to play in the development of the products and technologies that can change our world.

Keynoting his final product launch in March of 2011, Steve Jobs closed with these very sentiments: "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough — it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that makes our heart sing."

"The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs" will be performed next at the Seattle Opera (2018—19) and the San Francisco Opera (2019—20.)

Published here on Forbes.com
August 31, 2017