Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Steve Jobs, a mixed bag visionary

I am a Boomer, and for a large portion of my life I realized that my grandfather's life had been changed more by technology than mine had.  Even though I was living in a remarkable, technological era with TV, fast cars and planes, rockets to the moon, etc. his personal experience was transformed in a way for him that it hadn't been for me. He and his generation had been personally empowered by the technological changes in a way that had been unprecedented in history.

He went from an era of horse and buggy to cars and planes.  The radio connected him to the world in a way that his parents hadn't known.  Electricity and transportation transformed his world dramatically.  My world had better versions of the things that his world had introduced:  the TV was an upgrade of the radio, the cars were faster and the roads were better, electricity modernized the home, the kitchen, and the workplace.  But his world changed from a rural world to an industrial world.

The symbols of that industrial transformation were Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.  They changed the world.

But, my world was changed in just as dramatic a way when Steve Jobs led a new pack of transformers onto the scene.  Edison and Ford brought the industrial age to everyday people.  Jobs and Gates brought the information age to everyday people.  With the advent of the personal computer, followed by many outgrowths of it, people are connected to each other and the the world and to infinite sources of information in ways that were unthinkable to my grandfather, and unthinkable to my younger self.

Like Henry Ford, Steve Jobs is a mixed bag.  He is being rightly praised as his illness forces him to step aside at his company, Apple, for his remarkable vision and the force of his charismatic personality to carry that vision into the world.  It seems to me, however, that along with the amazing positives of Steve Jobs and the unquestionable benefit that he has been, and perhaps will continue to be for a while at least, he also carries a very dark and destructive impact as well.

It seems to me that part of his legend, and thus part of his influence, is his obsessive, demanding, domineering, abusive personality and management style.  The biggest problem with that is that it looks to me like people have conflated the two - the visionary and the abusive tyrant.  They seem to think that the way to be like Steve Jobs is to be an abusive tyrant, as if visionary genius will spring forth from abusing people in their organization and in their competition.

It's pretty easy to be as abusive and demanding as Jobs, but that has nothing to do with being an intuitive, visionary genius.  So, Apple will plod along under the reign of another workaholic, perfectionistic, perhaps abusive manager. And Apple may even still benefit from visionaries within it.  But I fear that Steve Jobs wannabees in the high tech area and beyond will drive themselves and the poor souls under their reigns of terror to ever more imbalanced, workaholic lives.  But none of that will replicate that part of Steve Jobs that transformed the modern world - being a visionary genius.

So, I am hoping and expecting new visionaries to step forward and, being themselves rather than trying to be Jobs imitators, will become even greater visionaries and take the world into even more remarkable and fascinating places.  

Thank you, Steve Jobs, for your transformational visions.  I know that your were worshiped and followed nearly slavishly by employees and customers both.  I just wish you had treated people better along the way.

It's up the the rest now to create their own, unique visions, along with more transformational and positive ways of bringing those visions to fruition.