In the life stage of monarchies, the palace crier proclaims "Long Live the King" followed by "The King is dead" and then "Long Live the King." As Apple rallies around the leadership team which survives the death of founder Steve Job, customers, media, and investors wondered how Tim Cook, the new CEO could possibly be "the new Steve Jobs" -- especially after an underwhelming product launch the day before Jobs' passing. Disappointed, Apple watchers reexamined Apple's long-term senior vice president of iOS Software Scott Forstall, Apple global marketing, Phil Shiller and iPad developer Jonathan Ives for traces of the Jobs mystique.
Such leadership searches will not be satisfying. There is no known clone of Steve Jobs -- but even if there were, it was as much his experience that defined him as his genes -- or given his deliberate casual look, some would say his jeans (and turtleneck). To find the next Steve Jobs means first defining Steve Jobs. He is a global household name, known across all segments of society and all life stages. He was not merely a successful or even merely an inspiring business leader. Steve Jobs was a classic folk hero and folk heroes are not simply the product of carefully designed organization charts, diligent inventory management by HR department replacement tables, conventional MBA courses, messianic external searches by board committees and recruiters, or other neatly planned succession conveyor belts.
Instead, they are the product of restive souls struggling through the rocky road of uncommon risk, grandiose dreams, disappointment, failure, and fear of mortality. Not always pleasant people to be around, they produce change through this never-satisfied quest. Sigmund Freud's 1929 masterpiece Civilization and its Discontents argued, "One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be 'happy' is not included in the plan of 'Creation.'" Similarly, painter Robert Motherwell once explained why artists sneak in at night to touch up their "completed works" already hanging on gallery walls. "One wonderful thing about creativity is that you're never wholly satisfied with what you're trying to do. There's always the anguish, the pleasurable challenge."
At times, various occupations from explorers and frontiersmen, to warriors and statesmen, to inventors and business leaders, speak to this societal need -- depending on where society's greatest uncertainty and disruptions appear. When American society no longer needed images of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, heroic images of legendary frontiersmen like Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Davy Crockett, and others arose. Then inventors such as Samuel F.B. Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Luther Burbank, the Wright Brothers, and Henry Ford captured the public imagination. They, in turn, were followed by FDR, George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Omar Bradley, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. At a later period, we saw figures such as Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce of Intel, Ken Olsen of Digital Equipment, An Wang and David Packard of HP, followed by Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Steve Jobs of Apple.
Folk heroes provide us with a path to navigate through highly uncertain times with simplifying frameworks for a complex world and the personification of transformation in calming human dimensions. They are characterized by five key criteria.
First is the image of the common touch -- often through humble origins. Thomas Edison, who founded General Electric and invented the electric light, the phonograph, and motion pictures -- was the son of a rural lumber mill operator. Car maker Henry Ford was a farmer. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie was the immigrant son of a poor Scottish weaver. Steve Jobs was an orphan abandoned by his natural parents -- a Syrian Muslim political scientist and a U.S. graduate student.
Second, business folk heroes triumphed over life's adversity from career setbacks to personal health crises. Both of Henry Ford's first two automobile firms failed. Walt Disney's first two companies failed as well, and he lost control of his first cartoon characters... Thomas Edison was cruelly outmaneuvered by tycoon Jay Gould and lost the rights to many of his own early significant inventions such as the simultaneous transmission of several messages on the same wire. Steve Jobs of course showed incredible personal stamina and resilience in his five-year struggle with pancreatic cancer. His business comeback is unrivaled in industrial history. Jobs was forced out of the firm he created in 1985 and did not return to Apple until 1997 when the firm purchased his new firm Next. The Apple he returned to was a dying enterprise then, and by the time Jobs died 14 years later, it had become the world's most valuable company. The second chance was essential.
Third, business folk heroes championed revolutionary technologies, discovering new markets and setting new standards of business performance. Edison, with 1,093 patents, opened doors to vast new industrial frontiers in the fields of electricity, appliances, entertainment, and communications. Carnegie's transformation of steelmaking facilitated sweeping changes in transportation and construction -- while introducing popular new concepts of cost control in the production process. Ford's vision of bringing the automobile into the hands of the average American through his process of mass production was adopted worldwide much in the way Jobs' dream of bringing new technology into the average household with his notion of an inexpensive user-friendly personal computer. Through his series of blockbuster products from the MAC, the iMac, the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, and 230 patents, not to mention his pioneering animation studio Pixar, Jobs reshaped telecommunications -- entertainment, education, and commercial transactions.
Fourth, business folk heroes create their own mythic imagery as great promoters. They are not obscure inventors tinkering in their lab, but they seize the stage. This propensity for self-promotion is not new. Alexander III of Macedonia labeled himself "Alexander the Great" fabricating a lineage to Odysseus and Achilles. Thanks to the publicity he generated, historians considered Ford to be better known in the early 1920s than any other American. Edison was also a skilled booster of his own accomplishments, notoriously ignoring parallel or prior creations of Alexander Graham Bell. A compulsive achiever, Edison hired platoons of publicity agents charged with elevating his fame. Jobs was such a master of staging, secrecy, and myth-making, many technology bloggers seriously expected that the flat iPhone 4S product launch by successor Tim Cook two days before Jobs' death was a set-up for a cameo visit from Jobs himself -- back on stage.
Fifth, business folk heroes general display a strong sense of civic concern and philanthropy. This is the unknown part of the Jobs legacy. They have used their voice and resources to address societal distress. The remarkable generosity of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet was not emulated by Steve Jobs despite his estimated wealth in excess of $8 billion. Gates and Buffet pledged the bulk of their wealth to communities and individuals in need -- similar to the later career philanthropy of Ford and Carnegie who funded educational institutions, libraries, and foundations. Some wonder if Jobs resisted the public displays of philanthropy curtailing corporate gifts and shutting down his own foundation -- preferring personal private acts and perhaps to give anonymously or posthumously.
This speaks to the complex nature of the Jobs persona. I met Steve Jobs over lunch in 1984 when he humbly introduced himself to pay tribute to my lunch partner, Polaroid founder Ed Land -- who prematurely dismissed Jobs as destined to fail because he didn't master his technology. But Jobs did understand his consumer -- sadly a blind spot for Land, a wizard on the photo chemistry of vision. By many accounts Jobs was not a gracious person, having defrauded his friend and co-founder Steve Wozniak of an even split in an early project at Atari and denying for years the paternity of his own out-of-wedlock first child, whose mother had to resort to public welfare. He was no fan of contemporary standards of transparency in governance. Notorious for exacting standards, Jobs was known for his temper and rush to "not suffer fools" who disappointed him.
On the other hand, his soaring standards for excellence improved the quality of the average person's life, great enhancements in health care and advances in education were enabled through his creations -- while providing employment to thousands and creating wealth for many. Jobs was a folk hero but not necessarily a gracious benevolent deity. Steve Jobs-like folk heroes are the key to American strength, but our management systems often drown the spirit of such creative geniuses because of their challenging complex characters. In short, Jobs was certain he simply did not have the time for niceties.
Many business folk heroes dispense with the niceties and courtesies common at work because they are driven on a mission -- a quest for immortality through their work. In the 2005 Stanford speech, Jobs said: "When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?"
The renowned psychoanalysts Otto Rank, Ernest Becker, and Robert Jay Lifton had described the unusual need of folk heroes to justify themselves as primary value in the universe as a quest for immortality. In the Denial of Death, Becker wrote of the leader who "must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest contributions to world life, and show that he counts more than anyone or anything else."
Haunted by their fear of mortality, they are in a hurry. It is through their unique identity and profound contribution that they can create an immortal legacy. As Jobs confided at Stanford, "No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. 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."
In an effort to reassure key constituencies, Jobs' successor announced that "we have Steve's visions" adding "Apple is not going to change" and he reiterated that thought yesterday: "Apple is not going to change. We will honor his memory by dedicating ourselves to continuing the work he loved so much."
Rituals over past triumphs were antithetical to Jobs' approach. Apple must fight the deification of Jobs, or it will lead to rigid principles manifest in strategic decisions or in clunky doctrines preached at a prospective Apple University, reportedly designed to teach people to think like Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs' leadership style is not just a product of a freely chosen cognitive style but largely the emotional product of unique life experience. In seeking more Steve Jobs-like leaders, you can't manufacture them, you have to find them.
Steve Jobs-like folk heroes are the key to American strength, but our management systems often drown the spirit of such creative geniuses because of their challenging complex -- even difficult -- characters. Thus the next Steve Jobs -- be it the complex characters of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, or Google's Sergey Brin, may not be easygoing congenial personalities, but the world is different because they are with us.
In finding the next Steve Jobs, we cannot do this by simply cultivating bureaucratic executive clones in corporate training by calling these programs "universities." At the same time, we do not want unconstrained imperial titans -- even if they are geniuses -- running public businesses without oversight, as we saw in so many governance collapses of the last decade. Yet in the balance, our institutions have to learn to identify and nurture difficult mavericks when they are geniuses.
In this age of self-directed work teams, empowered management, and activist boards, Jobs reminds us that we still need bold individuals as leaders. The Apple board took plenty of flak from governance critics for the risks they knowingly took to not suppress the rare genius of Steve Jobs. It is the hardest sort of place to serve as a director. Governance clichés can be suffocating and classroom rituals can come off as superficial and cultivating conformity through jargon and routines rather than actual risk taking, promoting failure, and encouraging genuine edgy creativity. Mere auditing, oversight, and compliance with rules is not the way to govern with such folk heroes. Boards have to learn how to earn the personal trust of such CEOs and reach them through reason and dialogue rather than threat.
Wherever we may travel in the world -- in distant seaports, capitals, mega cites, and villages, the town squares or central parks are decorated with monuments. Rarely are these tributes to a board committee or a management task force. Rather they are a celebration of courageous -- if quirky -- individuals who rise above the crowd to lead.
This post has been modified since its original publication.
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