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Stephen Herrington Headshot

A Recognized Quality of Leadership

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As January 20th brings America a new President, I am reflective. The news of Steve Jobs' taking of medical leave from Apple brings into focus what a remarkable leader can do. As Steve Jobs did for Apple, twice, Obama shows promise of being able to do for the nation.

I joined Apple shortly after Jobs was forced out by John Sculley in 1985. I had been working for their competition, Cromemco and Visicorp, as of that date no longer extant. It was not for lack of trying that we did not beat Apple to market or in market share. Working at Apple proved the reasons that working hard elsewhere was not enough.

What was the magic?

As far as I could tell there was no special Apple corporate culture that led people to try harder or encouraged more and better thinking or imagination. Apple was meeting heavy, quality obsessed, political, petty, often unfocused and often working to cross purposes. A typical high tech company with one difference, a higher percentage of killer products. How did this erstwhile typical company get all those killer products?

American Exceptionalism not withstanding, we are a collection of religious zealots, malcontents, misfits, former slaves and aboriginals from both within and north and south and west of our current borders. We are little different from any other nation except for a presumable impatience on the part of our ancestors with the status quo. That impatience tending more to anarchy than order despite stabilizing aboriginal influence, how, then, did we ever produce the killer product called America? Unfinished it is, but so is the Macintosh, i-pod and i-phone.

Years of toiling in high tech startups is, perhaps, instructive. It may seem a simple concept, but what you work on is more critical than working hard. What is not simple is deciding what to work on. To say leadership is required to provide focus effort is naiveté. The world overflows with leadership that provides the exact opposite of constructive focus. Discipline is moot if the discipline is not applied to the most productive undertaking.

Steve Jobs, in the early days, was most famous for insulting his engineers. He was fond of, nay coined, the expression "brain damaged", as applied to a useless or indifferent effort. Many management types had used intimidation, criticism, continually raising the bar for praise, for years, even centuries. Jobs made it work by demonstrating an objective view that was beyond the kin of those he led. His legend of outbursts belied a patience that was both for himself in his own path of discovery and for those who were in his employ who could not read his mind. And his mind could not be read. It was still in the making, as it is to this very day. His mind was/is in the making as is every mind that remains in awe of the world and its own failures in understanding it.

Obama, like Jobs, is on a journey. To quote Steve Jobs, "The journey is the reward." The quote is the trite of trite now, and at first glance an admonition to simply work hard. But ones journey can lead, like Jobs', through the helm of Apple or, like Obama's, through the helm of a country. And during that journey no objective is too small that leads to learning what the next step will be. No detail is too trivial if the detail will insure the footing of the next step. And as you learn to walk, then run, then leap, the ability to discern the importance of the placement of a footfall is refined.

Leaders do not lead because it is their job. Leaders lead by a restlessness that lures them to the horizon. Others follow them because they are going somewhere while others are not.

I only saw the residue of Steve Jobs' first stint at Apple. I watched it fade as the Pepsi salesman turned an engine of creativity into an also ran. I mark the day that the first Apple died, when Sculley, at Gate's request, quit making Apple labeled software. I designed and wrote the software for the first virtual networks at that time. I wrote code to allow Apple and Microsoft computers to share files. I wrote code for the first high speed point to point network connections. These things preceded the rest of the industry by a decade. But the magic had died at Apple. The mind that would have valued the potential of these things was gone, elsewhere. John Sculley could not see it as he had no knowledge of computing. He was a salesman. He was interested in selling, and, slowly, the Apple culture became a culture of selling to Sculley.

As to the value of understanding government, Obama does. He understands it from the top down, the Constitution, and the bottom up, community organizer. If you have created a governing widget that will make the objective of his stated goal, perfecting this Union, more achievable, then he will find you and use what you have made if it is within his reach. This is the faith I have in his kind of mind. I have seen its workings in my life and the results are killer products.

Steve Jobs is not without critics. He has made myriad mistakes, not the least of which was bringing Sculley in as CEO. But in the long run, Jobs has made higher quality mistakes that most all others. And that, in the long run also, is about the best you can do. Obama has made mistakes. Reverend Wright, Rezko, Ayers, were political mistakes as were early excesses on birth control and gun control. It remains to be seen if Rick Warren will be a mistake, or Hillary as Sec. of State or Holder as Atty. General. He will continue to make mistakes recognized contemporaneous to his time in office and in historical perspective. He is fully capable of making the fewest and highest quality mistakes of any other Presidents in some time.

Steve Jobs brought a vision for the role of computing in everyday lives to the world. Current Apple consumer toys are an extension of that vision. He saw a world that no one else could see and which he could not even describe himself. He had to create it in order to understand it completely, and that is what he set out to do, even though it could never be complete. His path and mine have crossed and I have seen the size of his shoes. They will not be filled easily.

To me Obama harbors a similar progenitor's quest. His vision is a perfected government, a union of the people that is enduring. It does not currently exist and he must create it in order to fully understand it. And since no other can anticipate this world, he will be, ultimately, alone in it. Sound crazy? It is what the founders of our nation did. They had a vision. They acted to create it. It, as of January 20th, is still working being worked on.