Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Steve Jobs: One of a Kind

Steve Jobs asked, "If you knew that this was going to be the last day of your life, would you do what you are about to do?" 
(This is based on a post to OrgTheory.)
I just came from the monthly CapMac Macintosh user group meeting here in Austin. Perhaps not every Macintosh user is bound by religious ties to Apple and Jobs. In addition to the Stanford Commencement Address (here), we watched two tributes (one created by CapMac VP Michael Sidoric), and then half a dozen people came down to the altar to witness for the affect Steve Jobs had on their lives.
On the sociology and economics blog, OrgTheory, Prof. Kieran Healy of Duke University springboarded the passing of Jobs for a post on the nature of Charisma. I replied that charisma, like entrepreneurship, is going to be sought and argued by sociologists because, ultimately, it is the ineffable quality of an individual. Maybe you can learn charisma; but it cannot be taught at university. And neither can entrepreneurship.

Jobs was both charismatic and an entrepreneur. It may be that the two are causally linked. Which is the cause or effect may finally depend on finding some third factor that brings into existence the other two. We know that different leaders have different styles and yet are separately successful. Different as they were, Hiram Ulysses Grant and George Armstrong Custer both ranked at the bottom of their classes at West Point.  Both excelled as leaders. On the other hand, Richard P. Feynman was obviously charismatic without being an entrepreneur. Neither has he generated a cult of disciples who mimic him. On the other hand Ludwig Wittgenstein did spawn students who copied his affectations, though, again, without consciously building an economic enterprise.
You can learn entrepreneurship or charisma or leadership; you cannot teach them. But we can teach organizational behavior and organization theory. Kieran Healy asked (rhetorically) if the CEOs of Exxon Mobil or NestlĂ© will be honored the same way: "Apple’s storefronts became impromptu shrines and memorials, something we can safely say will not happen at gas stations or supermarkets when the CEOs of Exxon Mobil or NestlĂ© pass on." Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and a few others of that generation stand out, as do a few from every generation.

An ice age ago, we were lucky to have one person like that every three or four generations. Now with 6 billion of us, we lesser mortals benefit more frequently from the actions of the blessed and the divine. Tell someone that the universe is not only stranger than we do imagine, but stranger than we can imagine, and they will nod in sage agreement with the deep realization that we are limited in our knowledge. Yet, somehow, we are expected to understand and replicate Steve Jobs. The Marxists thought that a workers' committee could replace Rockefeller and Ford. We think that university graduate schools can generate copies of Jobs or Gates or Soros or Buffett.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

Shelley's "Ozymandias" is supposed to remind us that we are dim lights, solitary candles, easily extinguished. And yet, we do know Ramses the Great. It is an easy prediction that Steven Paul Jobs will be known to millions who never know of the pharaoh. Ultimately, all that can matter is that at the end of his life, he knew that he made a difference in his lifetime. It is all we can expect.

Whether Apple endures remains to be seen. Free market economists revel in the fact that the Fortune 500 churns. Yesterdays's giants are gone, perhaps not yet forgotten like Ozymandias. On the other hand, old continuing firms do exist. (Wikipedia here.) Many are hotels. Others are breweries. That Apple produced the iPod (iPhone, etc.) may prove to be more significant than IBM's role in computers as data processing machines. We must wait and see.

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