THE RETURN OF THE KING

THE RETURN OF THE KING

INTRODUCTION

Just as the legal attack on Microsoft was ending Bill Gates’s donlinance, Steve Jobs’s return to Apple demonstrated the irreplaceable value of a company’s founder. In some ways, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were opposites. Jobs was an artist, preferred closed systems, and spent his time thinking about great products above all else; Gates was a businessman, kept his products open, and wanted to run the world. But both were insider/outsiders, and both pushed the companies they started to achievements that nobody else would have been able to match.

A college dropout who walked around barefoot and refused to shower, Jobs was also the insider of his own personality cult. He could act charismatic or crazy, perhaps according to his mood or perhaps according to his calculations; it’s hard to believe that such weird practices as apple-only diets weren’t part of a larger strategy. But all this eccentricity backfired on him in 1985: Apple’s board effectively kicked Jobs out of his own company when he clashed with the professional CEO brought in to provide adult supervision.

Jobs’s return to Apple 12 years later shows how the most important task in business—the creation of new value cannot be reduced to a formula and applied by professionals, When he was hired as Interim CEO of Apple in 1997, the impeccably credentialed executives who preceded him had steered the company nearly to bankruptcy.

THE RETURN OF THE KING

That year Michael Dell famously said of Apple, “What would I do? I’d shut it, down and give the money back to the shareholders.” Instead Jobs introduced the iPod (2001), the iPhone (2007), and the iPad (2010) before he had to resign in 2011 because of poor health. By the following year Apple was the single most valuable company in the world.

Apple’s value crucially depended on the singular vision of a particular person. This hints at, the strange way in which the companies that create new technology often resemble feudal monarchies rather than organizations that are supposedly more “modern.”

A unique founder can make authoritative decisions, inspire strong personal loyalty, and plan ahead for decades. Paradoxically, impersonal bureaucracies staffed by trained professionals can last longer than any lifetime, but they usually act with short time horizons.

The lesson for business is that we need founders. If anything, we should be more tolerant of founders who seem strange or extreme; we need unusual individuals to lead companies beyond mere incrementalism.

The lesson for founders is that individual prominence and adulation can never be enjoyed except on the condition that it may be exchanged for individual notoriety and demoniza-tion at any moment—so be careful

THE RETURN OF THE KING

Above all, don’t overestimate your own power as an individual. Founders are important not because they are the only ones whose work has value, but rather because a great founder can bring out the best work from everybody at his company. That we need individual founders in all their peculiarity does not mean that we are called to worship Ayn Randian “prime movers” who claim to be independent of everybody around them. In this respect Rand was a merely half-great writer: her villains were real, but her heroes were fake. There is no Galt’s Gulch. There is no secession from society.

To believe yourself invested with divine selfsufficiency is not the mark of a strong individual, but of a person who has mistaken the crowd’s worship—orjeering— for the truth. The single greatest danger for a founder is to become so certain of his own myth that he loses his mind. But an equally insidious danger for every business is to lose all sense of myth and mistake disenchantment for wisdom. 

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