Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Problem with being Brilliant

There's no doubt that Steve Jobs, the Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO of Apple Inc is a great man. Mr Jobs, along with Bill Gates of Microsoft is one of the pioners of the computing industry, which has been one of the key industries in creating the biggest transformation in how we do things. Mr Job's vision has also extended to the entertainment industry. As well as being a co-founder of Apple, Mr Jobs also founded Pixar Aniamtion, a company that is responsible for bringing technology to life via the movie screen. Most of us can barely make a dent in a corporation, let alone an industry. Mr Jobs by contrast has been been an icononic figure in two - technology and entertainment. 

Mr Job's biography is worthy of a movie. After founding Apple, he was driven out in boardroom struggle. Later on he was brought back to run a collapsing company that had been reduced to producing computers to a handful of geeks. Thanks to Mr Jobs, Apple has now become a producer of "Cool" thanks to innovations like the imac, the ipod and now the iphone. While Apple will never be the behemoth that Microsoft is, it has become hip and sexy. Thanks to Mr Jobs at Apple, technology is no longer the preserve of geeks but a symbol of cool - and it's paying off for Apple Shareholders. Mr Jobs has fans thoughout the world because he's made them very rich. 

It's easy to see why Singapore's planners are desparate to find Singapore's answer to Steve Jobs. In a world where uncertainty is becoming the rule of the day, Singapore's government planners have come to realise that they need brilliant individuals who can bring a host of benefits to society. The last time Singapore had an individual who made it to the pages of time Magazine was Mr Lee Kuan Yew, our current Minister Mentor and founding Prime Minister. 

Like Mr Jobs, Mr Lee was a revolutionary. In an age where large post-colonial states where given to trying to isolate themselves from the global economic system, Mr Lee managed to turn his city-state into a dyanmic trading port by opening up. Mr Lee revolutionised the idea of what type of countries could succeed. - Prior to Mr Lee's activities, the world assumed that you had to be a big country filled with natural resources in order to succeed. Today, larger countries are looking to tinny Singapore for blue print to success. Deng Xiaopeng is said to have told Mr Lee that, "If Only I just had Shanghai to run." 

Messers Jobs and Lee are undoubtedly great men. They've changed people's mindsets and brought prosperity to a good deal of people. However, both of them have failed their legacies and the people who have come to look to them for guidence - they have made themselves indispensable to them. This was shown most clearly when Mr Jobs recently took six-month medical leave because his medical problems were "More Complicated" than he thought they were. Apple Shares tumbled by 10 percent when the news was announced.

Why should shares tumble when a CEO has to take sick leave? The answer is simple, the shareholders are wondering what happens to the company if that CEO was to leave the job. Yes it's personally flattering to be needed but its also failure on the part of the CEO to develop the organisation. Look at McDonalds by comparison. McDonald's has continued to thrive even in circumstances like the sudden death of its CEO. Why has McDonald's been able to do this? McDonald's has succeeded because it has develped a corporate culture that goes beyond an individual and a system to support that culture. By contrast, Apple beyond Mr Jobs doesn't seem to have very much. 

It takes great men to build great things, whether they are countries or companies. However, once the building takes place, its important for the builder to look at life of his creation after him. In the case of McDonald's is has survived Ray Kroc it's founder and countless of CEO's. The USA as a nation has a system that survives Presidents and countless other officials. Apple, it seems has very little to offer without Mr Jobs. Yes, there was the ipod,mac and phone - but all of these are credited to Mr Jobs and his brilliant management. Mr Jobs has made himself so much a part of Apple, it's hard to think of Apple without him. What he's created is not so much a company but a personality cult. Personality cults unlike religions do not survive beyond their founders.   
Mr Jobs is undoubtedly brilliant but he has failed to make Apple independent of him and the uncertainty that brings will hurt his legacy. He should have looked at his less flamboyant but more successful rival - Bill Gates of Microsoft. While Mr Jobs became known as the best "Second-Act" CEO around, Mr Gates has slowly but surely spent the last few years distancing himself from Microsoft and concentrated on his foundation. First he relinquished his CEO title to Steve Balmer, then it was the Chairmanship. Mr Gates is moving from being the man who changed the computer industry to being the man who will change the world. Microsoft share price is affected by industry events and market conditions rather than the well being of its leaders. 

As Mr Lee ponders this contribution to Singapore, he could do well to look at the difference between Mr Jobs and Mr Gates. It would serve him and Singapore well if he were to dissapear from the running of Singapore and spend his tremendous energies doing other things that would benefit the nation and perhaps the world. 

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