A friend recently emailed me and asked me what my thoughts were regarding the passing of Steve Jobs, asking particularly if he really was a world-changing visionary or not. The high praise for Jobs has been almost universal, but less flattering pictures are emerging online as well. As a technology entrepreneur, here is my response, somewhat expanded.
Steve Jobs was most certainly a visionary. He was committed to ideas and envisioning how things would be in the future. Often visionaries are right about the future. Often they are wrong. What is inspiring about Jobs is that even when it appeared his vision was wrong, he did not give up on it, believing that somehow his vision was right and everyone else was wrong.
People with this kind of personality, like me, often find themselves swimming against the tide, outside the mainstream, and paying a price for it. Jobs flamed-out miserably in the 1980s, but eventually, the world changed, and veered into his vision. In this sense, Jobs did not change the world. The world changed, and Jobs was there waiting for it, like he knew it was going to happen.
Something that is missing in the current anti-corporate backlash is the realization that for every Steve Jobs there are hundreds of visionaries still waiting for the world to come around to their way of seeing things. If we are to inspire innovation and job creation in this world, we need to respect people who try and fail to create new ways of doing things. Jobs was forced out of his own company when it was on its last legs. His comeback was not a given. He could have ended up merely a noted but somewhat obscure historical figure, like Dr. An Wang.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell was certainly right to investigate the antecedents to the uber-successful titans of the computer age, like Jobs. Jobs was born at the right time and in the right place with the right people around him. There will never be another Jobs or Bill Gates because the personal computer is already with us. Gladwell busts the myth that success comes purely from within without outside help. The expression “self-made” is a misnomer, for sure.
Jobs’ reported difficult personality I think is in keeping with the visionary mindset, which is obsessed with a “vision” of how things should be. Everything that falls outside the “vision” is an extraneous and annoying distraction. When you are utterly convinced you are right, there’s no point arguing. You just want it done they way you need it done. Period.
No company can perform admirably with only this kind of feedback to the team. This suggests to me that Jobs surrounded himself with exceptional people with different and complimentary strengths. You cannot have an effective team with a leader who never listens. It is absolutely impossible that Apple succeeded without a lot of talented team players to make things happen. It’s a testament to Jobs that his ego did not prevent him from bringing on talented people who were very different from him.
In the world of new technology ventures, it is the received wisdom that the “visionary founder” needs to be replaced when the company reaches a critical stage of growth. This is why Jobs was fired in the 1980s. They believed Jobs would “take the company down with him” with his tyrannical commitment to his “vision.” The inflexibility of “tunnel-vision-founders” can destroy a firm needing to leverage a world of new opportunities, or handle much needed changes, or so the story goes. Jobs’ career defied and crushed that story line. Jobs proved that the early, core vision of a firm needs to be retained and reinforced, not giving way to an “evolving identity.” This topic will be much discussed in business schools in the years to come, I’m sure.
I invented a technology 11 years ago that had an initial rush of success in the technology boom of 1999-2000, followed by the crushing collapse of 2000. I am still working to commercialize the invention, because I believe in it. I believe my vision for how commerce in digital goods will unfold in the future is correct, and no one yet has persuaded me that I am wrong, and I may simply ignore such proof even if it was presented to me. I have a vision and I am going to make it happen.
As a technology entrepreneur, I saw Jobs as a competitor, someone moving strategically to put his rivals out of business. On the other hand, a true visionary tends to do what he/she thinks is right, regardless of the competition, for better or worse. This is the paradox of Steve Jobs. He was not merely competing, he was changing the game, which as it turns out is hard to compete with.
Whatever you say about Jobs, he believed in his vision. Coincidentally and fortunately for him, so did billions of others.