December 3, 2020

Gordon MacDonald on Lessons We Can Learn from Steve Jobs

The Soul of Steve Jobs
What would it have taken to reach the Apple founder’s core?

by Gordon MacDonald
Leadership Journal, Winter 2012

* * *

This week I am reading Walter Isaacson’s fascinating biography, Steve Jobs. It’s like a car wreck on the interstate — I can’t turn my eyes away. The life of the late co-founder of Apple Computer covered the same time period as my own life, so the landscape and context reads like a road trip through Baby Boomer land: familiar yet freaky, comical, exotic, ludicrous, outlandish and bizarre and yet all of this became funneled through the American sieve into a story of business and enterprise.

I’ve been a Macintosh computer user since 1988 when I received a Mac SE for a seminary graduation present. As far as I know, that computer is still working; I donated it to a ministry that takes old computers to Africa for churches and ministers to use. I’ll confess that I drank the Kool-Aid from the beginning. Apple literally had their “evangelists” who sang the praises of this machine as something so revolutionary it would change the world. In some ways it has.

More recently, after Jobs’ death last October, I have wanted to read this biography to learn more about the man himself. I’ve had this sense that much of what we have seen in megachurch leadership in the past twenty five years has taken its cues from people like Jobs, who was the very symbol of cool, creative, innovative, visionary entrepreneurship. He saw possibilities others couldn’t see. He was famously said to have a “reality distortion field” that enabled him to ignore all the facts arrayed against his vision and push himself and others to produce amazing products. At tremendous cost, I might add, but we’ll discuss that when I review the book.

Today, just a suggestion that you read Gordon MacDonald’s thoughtful piece in Leadership and come back to discuss your own impressions of Jobs, Apple computer, the American way of “leadership,” the place of technology in our lives, our cultural fascination with innovation and charismatic visionaries, and any other related topic that comes to mind.

As we consider some of these things this week, I’m particularly interested in hearing how you think that all of this has affected the church and ministry in our day.


  1. StJohn117 says

    You WOULD suggest a topic that is hard for me not to be exceedingly verbose about, wouldn’t you, Chaplain Mike! 😀 I’ve nearly finished the book myself, after having started it last April and reading a few dozen books in between. It seems to be one of those books that I have in common with the elder generation.

    Disclaimer: I am a giant fan of technology. After God himself, this is a very close number two in terms of passion. Sadly, while I don’t work in the tech field right now, it’s never ceased to fascinate me.

    Jobs — I think Steve Jobs is one of the more colorful characters in technology on a very short list of those (The only real other one that comes to mind being John Romero, which I’m fairly certain most of the iMonks are going to say, “Who?”). I hesitate to call him an innovator in the sense of creating something out of nothing, (see John Carmack if you’re a gamer, Dennis Ritchie if you’re not.) he’s more of an innovator in the sense of refining an existing technology to a point where ANYONE can use it. There’s not many guys in this field that do their best work at the end of their life, so I disagree that Jobs didn’t learn anything. Then again, I find that the more brilliant people are, the less people skills they have because they insist in can be done.

    Apple Computer — I’ll be interested to see what they do. I think they’re definitely in a good position to experiment and the real question is… are they going to keep pushing forward or are they going to become the next Microsoft? Ok. You can stop giving me the ugly stares now.

    The American way of leadership — I fail to see much of a difference in the way Jobs led vs every other CEO. The difference was, Jobs flat out told you that you were garbage, other CEOs frame it in nice HR friendly language. (Frankly, I’ll take the Jobs version of leadership over the ladder. At least I know how to parse it.) Forgive me if that sounds bitter And forgive me if what I’m about to say sounds cynical, but it’s part of the reason I absolutely can’t stand the way church has decided to imitate this style of leadership and when you disagree with something, it’s like you’re disagreeing with God himself. I’ll stop right there unless you really want to read a cynical rant about government, corporations and the church and why I keep my distance from all three. I’ll summarize it this way: It’s kinda like sausage. You really don’t want to see how decisions are made because frankly, it will make you absolutely sick. The end product however, is at least okay.

    The place of technology in our lives — Man, where to begin with this one. Having started with an Apple II at the wee age of four, and now some almost twenty five years later, it never ceases to amaze me what we’ve managed to do in that time period. I mean, we went from 8 mhz to 3,000 times that speed AND BEYOND! It’s mind boggling, even for those of us who have spent so much time with these delightful machines. Let’s start with the good: Technology has brought a number of people together all over the world to here on this site. All you have to do is pay the minor service fee and there you are. So much knowledge contained in one place. There’s been a lot of long lasting friendships that I’ve made in these travels. And many wonderful things that have been created and build to make our lives easier from record storage to entertainment that is interactive. But yet, I think technology does have an isolating effect if it’s not used correctly. Technology has added some “sizzle”to church. I think there are some uses for technology, but I’m not sure that’s one of them. I’m not sure film clips are a way to illustrate sermon points. Forgive me, but I don’t want to see the pastor on a big screen. Tying into what I wrote about with Jeff Dunn’s recent post, I need the church, even though at times I want to hide under the covers and say, “Not again!” I need the word, I need the table. I need to say the words, “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but say the word and I shall be healed.” Perhaps Catholics were correct when it comes to telephone confessions and televised mass. (How many times I have said that in the last two years? Martha, is that you I hear chortling?) I need the bread and the wine, the body and blood of Christ. Without that, I’m dead. Pure and simple.

    Plenty more I could say about the tech topics, but I’ll give them a rest and let someone else have a crack at it.

  2. I found this interesting:

    “In the Steve Jobs world, the casualty rate in such a Darwinian atmosphere was great. But—and here is the conundrum—the work usually got done, the objectives were achieved, the products shipped. More often than not, people delivered the impossible that Jobs demanded. Call it a task-driven leadership. But it wasn’t a place where people with values ascended. Only the toughest survived. It’s not difficult to see this pattern in a larger-than-life man like Steve Jobs and to harshly criticize it. What is more challenging is seeing that this same tendency lies latent in the hearts of most leaders—Christians included. A great goal, a strong passion, a consuming need: they are the stuff of self-justification when a leader comes to believe that something must be achieved for the noblest of reasons. It is the temptation of the preacher who, in seeking to persuade, enhances or diminishes the truth to make his point. It is the temptation of any organizational leader when additional money must be raised to keep the cause afloat.”

    I also is reflected in how people in such churches treat their “employees”, behind the scenes.

  3. I recall being at a church growth conference in the 1980s with one of the top gurus of the day. I can never forget how he compared it with the business of agriculture.

    There were pioneers, settlers and ranchers. I think the Pastors were ranchers. and he said ‘your church will never grow until you drive some of the settlers out ‘ (or pioneers, I do not recall which).

    There you go. The fusion of business practice with Christianity.

  4. This is a wild tangent but…

    I have found that I have tended to discount what Gordon MacDonald has written since he had his extra-marital affair some 28 years ago.

    Yes, he may have undergone restorative discipline, and he may be reconciled to his wife, and he may have gone on to further successes in terms of his career, but I still find that I am extremely uninterested in what he has to say.

    Have others have similar experiences with other leaders or pastors?

    • hmmm, yeah I do too. But usually my disdain is reserved for leaders whom I listened to before their downfall. I much more upset with people I used to like than with people I never really cared for. Does that make sense?

      • It does. For me I guess it was because I was heavily involved with IVCF when he had his affair, and had just finished reading “Ordering your private world” (which I considered one of the most spiritually dry books that I had ever read.)

  5. Really, Michael Bell? 28 years ago??? You self- righteous ass…

  6. Really, Michael Bell? 28 years ago??? You self- righteous ass…
    I can’t imagine what Jesus would say to someone like you.

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