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Honor the Icon

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“We live in an age of great events and little men, and if we are not to become the slaves of our own systems or sink oppressed among the mechanism we ourselves created, it will only be by the bold efforts of originality, by repeated experiment, and by… sustained and unflinching thought.”
– Winston Churchill

We live in a time where inspiration is hard to come by. I suggest you read the new Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson over Christmas break to find some of that. There have been many great business icons over the past century, from Vanderbilt to Carnegie and Rockefeller, but the railroads and steel empires of today come in the form of technology. There are few men who have taken over market share of computers, music, phones, books, and soon to be television like Steve Jobs and Apple. Regardless of what you think of him, he is a good study on America, entrepreneurship, ideas and success.

If you really want to learn about someone, don’t ask that person or read their self-crafted words, look at the wake they leave behind. I picked up Howard Schultz (Starbucks CEO) book about Starbucks only to realize he was just trying to sell me more Starbucks. Three pages in, I was done. What makes this book about Steve Jobs so different is that Walter Isaacson wrote it after exploring Jobs as a man by interviewing the people who competed against him, dated him, grew with him, and were fired by him. It is an unscripted and unedited account. He is not obsessed with Apple. He is not some Steve Jobs fanboy. He is merely delivering his accurate account of the recently deceased icon after thorough research. It is an honest picture of what is often required: the good, bad and ugly.

Isaacson paints a picture of Jobs as a creative genius that had deep inner motivation for achievement that came from some dark and brilliant places. He goes into his childhood and sets up the narrative for how he framed his worldview. I think we need more of that these days. While you can be lectured on management styles or theories on supply chain forecasting, products and services are often linked by a human connection. This connection is not as easily quantifiable, and right-brained professors have trouble validating it.

Looking back on my college career, about 95% of what I learned was from relating to people. When I was co-rush chairman in 2000 there were no rules for having an effective rush. It was really more about connecting to the guys, telling the story of our chapter and giving them experiences they couldn’t find anywhere else. I noticed the same thing serving as chaplain a few years later. It was really just about hanging out and listening to guys talk about what was going on in their lives. The power of persuasion and humanity in business is important. Jobs was known for his “reality distortion field.” He was so mesmerizing and convincing with his presence and persuasion about products that you could almost believe anything he said. The engineering teams would develop products that didn’t seem possible. A line from their famous commercial from a few years ago really rings true: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

Isaascson does a great job weaving the person, the products, and the story of it all in a way that connects humanity, drive, ambition and genius together. Isn’t it true that we are all a mix of many things? Our upbringing and parents, our life circumstances growing up, and our personal experiences since, and the inner motivators and gifts some of which we are biologically born with and some of which we learn or earn. It is all part of who we are, and who we are becoming.

As Churchill wrote, “We live in an age of great events and little men.” For us to become great men, it is good to study those who succeeded before us, so that we might know more about how to interpret and walk our own paths. If you want to see genius, arrogance, beauty, and brokenness all in one place, pick up “Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson.

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