Sunday, October 09, 2011

Greatness

There can be no doubt that Steve Jobs; the late CEO of Apple Computers was a great man. If you were to look back at the last two-decades of human history and ask who was the greatest man, Mr Jobs would certainly be one of the leading contenders.

Mr Jobs was a revolutionary thinker. It was his brilliant strategic vision that made Apple one of the most valuable companies (at the time of writing, Apple is competing with ExxonMobil to be the most valuable company on the New York Stock Exchange) after it had been written off.

Every entrepreneur dreams of coming up with a product or service that will change an industry. Mr Jobs did this in about half a dozen industries. First he came out with the Mac, which revolutionised personal computing. Then, when he got kicked out of Apple in May 1985, Mr Jobs went on to create NeXT Computers (which produced the basis for many of Apple’s later inventions) and then to Pixar, the company that changed the face of animation (produced Toy Story, the first-ever full length animation feature film.) When he returned to Apple in 1996, Mr Jobs went onto change the way we use desktops with the iMac, listen to music with the iPod and use mobile phones thanks to the iPhone.

With his track record, you could call Mr Jobs a genius. He had the unique ability of understanding what people would want before they themselves knew it and creating the technology to suite those needs. Mr Jobs understood the technology and he understood the business. You could say that the only other person who understood business and technology was Thomas Edison who lived nearly a century earlier.

Mr Jobs was not without his faults. He was not above using intimidation and humiliation of his subordinates. He was also not above using “monopolistic” practices that were more commonly associated with his rival, Bill Gates of Microsoft.

However, all of these things grew into Mr Job’s public persona and on the whole; you could say that it made him even more enduring to the public imagination. If he was terrifying to work for, it was because he was a demanding perfectionist. Say what you like about the man but he did build his wealth from giving us things that changed our lives for the better and without “ravaging” the world in the manner of the robber barons of the past century did.

His personal story was also appealing. You could call it – “The stuff that makes epic movies.” His birth-name was not “Jobs.” His natural father is a Syrian Muslim called, “Abdulfattah John Jandali.” He was in fact given up for adoption to Paul and Clara Jobs. Much is also made of the fact that Mr Jobs dropped out of university.

His life had ups and downs. He created Apple back in the early 1980s with Steve Wozniak and was unceremoniously dismissed in May 1985 by the man he brought into be its CEO. His return to Apple in 1996 was the “comeback” story that most of us can only dream of.

Mr Jobs has done more than enough to deserve the title of “Great.” He is rightfully revered by the technology and wider community for his achievements. His death on October 5, 2011 at the age of 55 marks the loss to humanity of a man who single-handedly did so much to make life better for so many. Amongst the people delivering eulogies was the President of the USA. Even his old rival, Mr Bill Gates, paid tribute to man who had brought us so many good things.

As great as Mr Jobs was, he had one major failing. To the millions of Apple product fans around the world, I might be committing an act of heresy to speak of his failings, but failings he had and his major failing provides an important lesson in leadership and personal development.

Mr Jobs’s biggest failing was this – everything he did was about him. In one sense this might not matter much. Who cares why he brought us the various “I” products – fact remains, he brought them to us and we’ve benefited from them.

However, on the wider scale of things, Mr Jobs’s failure has wider implications on how people view professional and personal management. Mr Jobs is and will remain to be revered by people all over the world and as much as we may want to learn from the many things he did right, its important to learn from the things he did wrong.

Let’s start with the obvious – Mr Jobs’s relationship with Apple. He was the founder and visionary leader. He was ousted from the company. He came back to run the company at the point when it was crumbling and remade it such that it ended up taking over several worlds. This speaks volumes about Mr Jobs as talented and visionary entrepreneur.

However, Mr Jobs never really made much of an effort to distinguish between him and Apple. The legend is that it was Mr Jobs’s personal vision that got Apple to bring out the host of revolutionary products. It was Mr Jobs’s vision that marketed these products into “Must have’s” for the world. Crudely put, Apple’s success was Mr Jobs’s.

Apple and Mr Jobs were one and the same. Apple was brilliant because Mr Jobs was. For an organisation, this works well provided the brilliant founder running the company remains so indefinitely.

Unfortunately, Mr Jobs was human and had a very human fault – he was prone to ill health. In 2004 he was diagnosed with a mild form of pancreatic cancer. He only resigned in August 2011, two months before his death. When he resigned, shares in Apple fell by a mere five percent (which is significant if you take Apple’s market capitalisation into consideration.).

As the tributes to Mr Jobs pour in, the question remains – “What is Apple’s future without Steve Jobs?” This valid question should be worrying Apple Employees and Shareholders. Will the company be able to survive with Mr Jobs? Will the company be able to remain brilliantly innovative now that Mr Jobs is gone?

Greatness is often measure by personal achievements – your greatness depends on what you do. Where many great fail to take that step into “True – Greatness” is that the truly great men know when to leave the stage and in many cases leave the stage at their own choosing.

In this respect, Mr Jobs failed to take that step into true greatness, unlike his less flamboyant rival, Mr Bill Gates at Microsoft.

Like Mr Jobs, Mr Gates played a key role in revolutionising the technology industry. Unlike Mr Jobs, Mr Gates operated on more than just being a reflection of his personal glory.

Yes, Windows and MS Dos are inferior products to the Apple Mac. Both systems were not creations of Mr Gates (he bought them off someone else). Mr Gates did not build his fortune by personal brilliance in technology and entrepreneurship. He did by having a vision (Computer on every desk) and then bringing together the various parties to make it work (from the original creator of DOS to the team at IBM).

The PC may not have the sex appeal of the Apple Mac but for most of us, it remains a reliable tool that we use out of sheer necessity. Ironically, Apple ran commercials that summed it up. PC was personified by a dull chap in a tweed jacket while the Mac was personified by the sexy young man dressed in a hip manner. As is often said, “Girls may be attracted to bad-boys but they marry the good boys.” PC may have lacked sex appeal but has proven reliable enough for most of us to stick by it.

The same is true of Mr Gates. He may have lacked Mr Jobs’s showmanship and strategic flamboyance, but he more than made up for it by being reliable and dedicated to his core message of a computer on every desk. Who built the greater fortune? Who has made more for ordinary people? Mr Gates didn’t recreate the way we listen to music but he’s made being rich accessible to ordinary people.

More importantly, Mr Gates has separated himself from Microsoft. He stepped down as CEO and handed the reigns over to a successor he trusted. He has used his vast fortune to make a difference to the world we live in thanks to his foundation.

You may not like Mr Gates but you cannot argue against the fact that he has been an immensely decent person. Microsoft was where he made his money. His foundation will be the place where he secures his name in history – he is the one person who may single-handedly find a cure for diseases like malaria and TB, which make a difference to a bigger number of people than a new phone.

In short, Mr Gates has managed to work his way into “true-greatness” in a way that Mr Jobs failed to do because he understood that things were more than just about his personal brilliance. Mr Jobs did brilliant things at Apple and at the companies he worked for (Pixar and Disney.). We celebrate Mr Jobs for brining us great products and giving us technologies that enhanced our lives.

Mr Jobs and Apple were brilliant. However, the question remains, is Apple capable of surviving without Mr Jobs? In a way the signs are encouraging. The only other entrepreneur and innovator is Thomas Edison, the man who created General Electric (GE). Today GE remains the only surviving member of the original NYSE. However, there are other signs to suggest otherwise – namely the stories about Mr Jobs’s controlling personality.

By contrast, nobody will forget Mr Gates. History will remember him not just as the man who built what was the world’s greatest fortune (US$100 billion plus in the 1990s) but as the man who gave so much to making the lives of the world’s destitute much better.

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