Today, Tim Cook takes the stage for the first time as the CEO of Apple to unveil the newest iPhone.
In recent years, Apple keynotes have become events of huge cultural significance. Millions of people tuned in online and tens of millions heard the announcement within hours of it being made. This was due largely to the captivating presentation style and leadership of Steve Jobs, and today the same curiosity factor will surround Tim Cook as people size up how he does in his old boss's role.
Today, an Apple keynote event is not unlike what a State of the Union Address was in the past -- a chance for millions to hang on the words of one person, closely scrutinizing every word. And this reflects a fundamental shift -- a shift to business, and away from politics, as the place where true leadership and greatness is still possible.
Regardless of what you think of their politics (or them, personally), some leaders throughout history have had an "insanely great" capacity to rally a population behind a shared vision. Ronald Reagan and FDR are the presidents who come to mind. When Reagan passed away in 2004, people bemoaned the fact that another like him would not come along any time soon.
I disagree. There are probably many Americans living today with the same leadership ability and inspirational skills as Reagan. But they're less and less likely to be in politics.
Exhibit A was Steve Jobs, who changed the world with his vision of ubiquitous computing. And for the introverts out there, Bill Gates stands out as your patron saint -- the awkward nerd who put a computer on every desk and is now devoting billions to fighting disease in Africa. In terms of their historical significance, their contributions rival that of any president.
When Reagan was elected in 1980, it made sense that politics would be the venue for talented leaders to ply their trade. That's when government mattered -- perhaps too much so. Government was a much larger share of the economy, and dictated the fortunes of everything else. And that was increasingly a problem -- a problem Reagan (who grew up under FDR and gravitated towards politics later in life) was elected to solve.
Recently, business has been the venue where both real progress -- and real problems -- have been most likely to arise. Business has been the place where great leaders can make their mark -- and poor ones can really mess things up. The housing bubble and financial crisis had titanic effects on the entire economy. And with economic prospects perhaps dimming, more and more Americans see quality of life gains coming in smaller packages, most of them delivered by business: a new iPhone, a Netflix subscription, the chipper service on a Southwest flight, a caffeine hit from Starbucks. Some might call this simple consumerism that's always been with us, but businesses have lately made a point of positioning themselves as quasi-public, cultural beings, talking of themselves as custodians of a larger purpose, rather than profit-maximizing enterprises.
Contrast this to politics, where leadership has been less and less likely to make any difference at all, especially on the national level. Some might chalk this up to partisanship and gridlock, but it's also due to the fact that the range of options available to policymakers just isn't that interesting anymore. Now, we mostly tinker around the edges -- debating a top tax rate of 35 or 39 percent. If the banks need a bailout, they are automatically given one. Presidents like John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan effected massive changes in the tax rate, and massive changes in America's Cold War posture. Despite the rhetoric, change like that does not seem possible in politics anymore, so natural leaders gravitate to where it is possible, in business, or in social good.
Though the possibility of change within politics has diminished, the need for it has not. Quite the opposite: We need a game-changing shift like the one we got in 1980, or to use a liberal counter-example, 1932. The economy is in a permanent jobless recovery and an entitlement crisis looms. That's where the need for larger-than-life leadership comes in, and it's what Barack Obama seemed destined to provide in 2008. In reality though, Obama is not a natural executive, his eloquence masking a professorial, detached, and perhaps overly conciliatory style that is not conducive to getting things done.
Steve Jobs, perhaps the most naturally gifted leader since Reagan, taught us that leadership is about pursuing a singular vision with brutal honesty and ruthless determination. The product of that will be seen once again on stage in Cupertino today, where the company that recently topped the cash-on-hand total of the U.S. government has plans for even bigger things: a spaceship-like headquarters bigger than the Pentagon.