Insubordination & Intimidation
Are the scales balanced?
In High School I had this English teacher that relied on authoritarian intimidation techniques to control her class and prop herself up. She understood the threat that my independent intellect posed to her ego & authority, and she frequently aimed to put me in my place.
In her mind, my place was in the seat.
In my mind, I had a right to stand up.
I don’t even remember her name, but I’ll never forget one defiant day I had in her class. We were studying a particular period of poetry in American literature and, after recitation of a famous poem, Sgt. Asshole solicited interpretations from the class.
I recall the poem moving me to raise my hand and describe what the poem meant to me. I recall her response being rather blunt. “No, wrong. Next?”
Someone else then presumably responded with the historically accurate & contextually relevant interpretation of the poem and promptly received the Pavlovian pat on the back. But I wasn’t listening. I was stewing.
“You can’t tell me that my interpretation of the poem is wrong. It’s one thing if you’re simply dismising me in retaliation, but if you truly believe that an interpretation of a poem can be wrong… then you have no business teaching poetry to High Schoolers!”
This may not have been exactly what I said after she tried to move the class along without calling on me again, but I certainly didn’t stew in silence. After speaking up, she consequently asked me to see her after class…
15min later or whatever, with my heart pounding and palms sweaty, I approached her desk. Her words and my shaky response have been seared into my mind and have guided certain elements of my behavior ever since.
Her: “Todd, I respect you. Do you respect me?”
Me: “No, I do not respect you.”
Her: “I expect and require you to respect me. So Todd, again, I respect you. Do you respect me?”
Me: “No. Respect cannot be granted. It must be earned.”
Her jaw kind of dropped and I left the room. I’m not sure if she learned anything that day, but if she did I hope she has forever kept clear the difference between respecting a person and treating a person with respect.
She claimed to respect me, yet she routinely treated me with disrespect.
I didn’t respect her, yet I always treated her with respect.
The class later moved on from poetry to another part of the curriculum: persuasive writing. Given that this was early 2003 and the US was on the brink of war with Iraq, it seemed like a suitable topic of focus for my assigned report. Given that this was English class and not Poli Sci or International Relations, this topic may have felt controversial to the class.
I was the only one in the class to write a persuasive piece on the Iraq War, and my side of the fence opposed that of Sgt. Asshole.
I received a C+ on this report. Was I graded fairly? You be the judge.
I’ve learned so many incredible things working at Apple. It is more than just an amazing company developing amazing products. It is an incredible institution.
A significant prerequisite to success as an engineer at Apple is a strong attention to detail. I’ve struggled with this skill personally & professionally. Surrounded by brilliant specialists, I have somewhat of a dirty secret:
I’m not a brilliant specialist.
I’m a mediocre specialist at best, and some of my more arrogant peers are likely apt to highlight this behind my back. But it’s no secret. In fact, I don’t have any interest whatsoever in being a brilliant specialist. That sounds really boring and risky to me, to be honest.
I’m an audio engineer. If you’re a specialist in audio, you’re missing out. The field is inherently multidisciplinary and extraordinarily full of passionate people collaborating & interacting in very meaningful ways.
If you’re gonna focus your attention on detail, how do you know which details deserve your attention?
The short answer: you either need to know or you need to be told.
A brilliant specialist is a worthless idiot if their expertise is not valuable.
If dynamic & relevant, a brilliant generalist can be a valuable innovator.
Look, we need both specialists & generalists, brilliant & not brilliant alike. This is super important. We need brilliant specialists to form solid pinpoint dots at precise & critical areas of interest. Just as important are the brilliant generalists forming lines & webs to connect those dots and create a network that’s greater than the sum of its parts. And we need everyone working together, not just the brilliant among us.
As it turns out, there’s a more common & fitting term for brilliant generalists:
Of the many corporate structures, I find two particular ones most interesting for comparison purposes: top-down & flat. Disperse the visionaries towards the bottom of the corporate latter and you can describe these two corporate structures with simple emojis:
💩 & 🤝
I’ve genuinely enjoyed the company and have genuinely respected the talents of nearly every person with whom I’ve worked at Apple. There are few exceptions. But I’ve noticed something about the exceptions. Something very important.
Apple eschews titles and formal designations. Like most of Silicon Valley, Apple knows that revolutionary genius sometimes strikes in the form of a college dropout fresh after dropping acid. Therefore, I view most of my colleagues as peers. I aim to treat everyone with respect regardless of whether they are my superior or my subordinate, regardless of their management chain or mine, regardless of the corporate or political winds of the moment.
At Apple, we are all just people trying to make the best products for people.
Anyway, what I noticed about the small group of colleagues whose company I do not enjoy and whose character I do not respect: they ruthlessly employ intimidation tactics.
This isn’t unique to Apple, and this isn’t unique to the corporate world (Sgt. Asshole’s domain was micro academia). I’ve got a fine tuned radar for the Mean Assholes (not be confused with Well Meaning Assholes like me & Tony Fadell). I knew that Sgt. Asshole was a Mean Asshole from Day 1.
I started my full-time professional career at Shure.
Prior to that I interned at both Shure & Bose. I learned a lot during both internships, as one tends to do. But one of the most impactful lessons was the importance of the people with whom you work. The culture at Shure was incredible, and presumably still is. I had two mentors during my internship - one whom I would later work closely with to develop MOTIV and the other who would be fired shortly before I started full-time. My manager while interning? She was awesome!
Since my former manager & mentor had recruited me to return after graduation, I touched base with them shortly before heading off to Europe for a month of post-grad backpacking with my then-girlfriend-now-wife. Since this was May 2007 and I didn’t have the iPhone (no matter how desperately I wanted one!) or any smartphone for that matter, I pretty much spent that European month completely disconnected from my contacts at Shure.
When I returned to start my new job, I had found that a former bigwig (whom I’ll refer to as Sgt. Major Asshole) had returned to Shure after planting his DNA there years prior. I might’ve respected the man had he not ceremoniously fired my former mentor. Technically, he didn’t fire my mentor, he laid him off. But Sgt. Major Asshole clarified among his direct reports that Mr. Mentor had effectively been fired. Those in the loop were aware of the past beef between Sgt. Major Asshole & Mr. Mentor. Thus, the team was painfully aware that this was a show of force.
“Fuck with me and I’ll fire you.”
The sad thing was that it wasn’t just Mr. Mentor that bit the bullet. There was also some unfortunate collateral damage, including the termination of a great engineer that just happened to be working with Mr. Mentor. My former manager had also consequently been reassigned so that Sgt. Major Asshole could steal the reins from her.
I’m so sick of Mean Assholes.
Anyway, to conclude this little jaunt down Memory Lane and glance down Elm Street, there’s a particular reality that has been haunting me lately:
Apple appears to not enforce its policy against intimidation, yet Apple can terminate you for insubordination.
Is this fair? You be the judge.