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Steve Jobs & The Gift of Charisma

There Are Many People Like Steve. But So Few of Them are Business Leaders

Zachary Woolfe writes in a local newspaper, "On March 19, 1965, Maria Callas returned to the Metropolitan Opera after a seven-year absence...(her) first entrance set off a wave of applause for several minutes. There were 16 curtain calls at the end."

Thus is "the mystical gift of charisma," as the article's headline states.

In the performing arts, charisma is valued. It separates mere technical brilliance from the sublime. In politics, it is dangerous. And in business, charisma will forever be known as "Jobsian."

Bill & Steve
History will record the great business battle between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They're the same age, started their companies at the same time, and built great companies out of cool stuff they'd seen a previous generation invent.

And they both smirk.

The Bill Gates smirk seemed to be one of self-satisfaction, of a certain condescension. And it was uncharismatic. Sure, it drew legions of like-minded geeks to Redmond. But when did it set the world on fire? (The good news is that Bill, in his uncharismatic way, is using his wealth to eradicate disease and improve the lives of millions. Defenders of his legacy have no worries.)

Steve's smirk always seemed to be driven by anger. Anger at a world that so often failed to have taste, at people who so often failed to push themselves to their limits, and at anyone who simply would not listen. And it was a charismatic smirk. It appealed to pirates and mods alike, and set the world on fire more than once.

Greatness Fades, Then Returns
Steve and Bill spent their earliest years, as I did, in the era when the US ruled supreme. We finished high school just as the American debacle in Vietnam ended and the American Dream seemed to fade for the first time. We entered college when Detroit forgot how to make cars, when the first Oil Shock exacerbated the initial decline in our industrial might. These were the days when Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter were in the White House, and Alan Greenspan was first toying with the economy.

But there was something cool going on in places like Steve's native Santa Clara County, in New Mexico (scene of Bill's famous mugshot), and in untold thousands of garages and basements throughout the country. The Post-Industrial Age had begun, and was about to move from highly financed leviathans and labs owned by the likes of IBM and Xerox, to creatively financed start-ups owned by guys like Bill and Steve.

Steve is just one in a long line of American innovators dating to Benjamin Franklin, and of geniuses dating back to the Lascaux cave painters, original wheelmakers, and paleolithic harvesters of fire. It's often been remarked that his closest contemporary predecessor is Walt Disney, and so it seems appropriate that Steve is Disney Co.'s largest shareholder today.

Add Jobsian charisma to Disneyesque magic-making, place him in the corporate world, and The True Dao of Steve emerges.

I think an additional, mucho importante part of his appeal is our realization that this guy would stand no chance of being hired by most companies. College drop-out, arrogant, not a team player, talks too much, mentions European washing machines when discussing computers, dresses different, probably couldn't tell you how he's leveraged mission-critical tasks around core objectives to achieve alignment with business objectives that drive customer value and achieve competitive advantage.

I, Steve
There are many people like Steve Jobs. Orchestra conductors and players, professional athletes, radiologists, physicists, philosophers, screenwriters, and comedians. Folk musicians, the folks working on creating life from RNA, and of course, your quotidian brain surgeons and rocket scientists. Novelists. Painters. Sculptors. A thousand other professions.

And many, many worker bees. It's always a pleasure to watch bricklayers, car mechanics, and dedicated waiters practice their craft. It's cool to watch bank tellers (those who are left) and blackjack dealers effortlessly handle their money and cards. And it's always fascinating to ask someone during a tense job interview what special talent they have that no one knows about.

Some people are operatic singers. Some are serious gymnasts. Some know every lyric of every Bob Dylan song. Some have memorized swaths of Proust. Others know every frame of Truffaut and Godard. I know people who really can name the vineyard of most any particular bottle of red wine. The list is endless. I have a weakness for Beethoven, Ravel, and Merle Haggard myself. Oh yes, and Maria Callas.

And there are still some companies that produce insanely great products. Boeing springs to mind.

The problem is, there are very few business leaders like Steve. There are very few who are so focused on every detail while bringing an aesthetic sense into the game. Even those who could not abide working for Steve seldom denigrate his talent, and never his taste. Thus, he gets placed on a pedestal because he seems unique in a business world too often defined by id, idiocy, hubris, and criminality. He is admired because there is an inner Steve (if a less talented, less charismatic Steve) within us all.

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More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.

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