One more thought about Steve Jobs

I have been struggling (quite publicly) to condense why Steve Jobs is so unique and important to us all into a crisp, clear thought.  It’s difficult, of course, given the breadth and depth of his influence.  When talking to a CBC reporter by phone this evening I got very close to the thought I really want to express and after some hang-wringing and a great deal of editing, here it is.

From the perspective of any modern corporation, Steve Jobs was a misfit and never should have made it to the top of the world’s largest technology company.  Compared to his peers at AT&T, RIM, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Samsung, LG, Lucent, Nokia, and even Google, one of these things is not like the others.  These people, while they are for the most part talented managers and/or innovators, are not brave and unconventional visionaries questioning — and challenging — the status quo.  The template of a contemporary CEO simply does not apply to Jobs.. yet it is safe to say that he created more shareholder value during his split tenure at the helm of Apple than all of these combined.

Jobs doesn’t fit as CEO material because, as I wrote a few years ago, the design of corporations systemically weeds out and ultimately purges people like Steve Jobs, tending to favour evolution over revolution; hedgehogs over foxes.  Insodoing these institutions prefer making incremental steps toward that which can be known and quantified versus embracing risk and opportunity to make great leaps forward.  HP or Microsoft would never have brought us the iPod.  Certainly not the iPhone.  And the efforts of Apple’s competitors in the tablet space?  Hmph.

The lesson with the greatest gravitas from Steve Jobs’ famous 2005 Commencement Address is in my opinion the following:

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

So what made Steve special is that, having ascended to the top of the technology industry ecosystem, he was seemingly a fluke.  Those dots — The iPod led to the iTunes Music Store and to a flattening of media distribution and to the iPhone and iPad and beyond — all connected back to a single leap where a computer company decided to sell some portable music devices and see what happened.  Jobs made big bets all the way along and knew that the dots would somehow connect down the road, and staked his personal and corporate reputation on quality in every regard.  No focus group or market research could have supported the decision to place these bets, and so no other CEO did.

Many of us think that we have the courage to make big bets.  Far fewer among us are given the resources and leeway to execute these broadly.  Still fewer among those are actually successful in both ideation and execution.  Steve Jobs danced on that razor’s edge and always came away unscathed, teaching us all that it can be done and that the rewards for success await.

Steve Jobs created new markets and made us crave things we didn’t know we would need; he helped us consume information and ideas in ways we never knew we could; he literally tore apart the media business and set forth reshaping it to be more consumer-friendly.  All the while he dazzled us with things which are ‘insanely great’ like a magician entertaining a crowd of transfixed six-year-olds.

The saddest aspect of Steve Jobs’ passing is simply that without him it will be a long time before a similar revolutionary will ascend the treacherous climes of corporataucracy to lead another hugely successful company to create things which dazzle and inspire us.  If ever.

Here’s hoping there’s another Steve in the wings somewhere.  Until then, we’ll likely have to make do with a whole lot less magic in our world.

3 thoughts on “One more thought about Steve Jobs

  1. Wow Ian great post- Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thanks for this one.

    It made me think of the quote from Steve @ the stanford commencement speech:

    “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition”

    Full quote can be found here:

  2. Ian makes a good argument but draws the wrong conclusion. There are many individuals in the world like Steve Jobs, capable of vision, inspiration and recognizing trends in social and technology that can manifest in products that seem as the old Panasonic’s tagline went “…just slightly ahead of their time.” There won’t likely be another Steve Jobs heading a major corporation because the operations and accounting people rarely believe they have someone like that in their midst, and insist on facts, competitive comparisons, and roi arguments to quash innovation in favour of “make us an iPhone, but cheaper” arguments.

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