Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who died this week after a long battle with cancer, is rightfully being lauded as a visionary, a person who brought technology seamlessly into our lives and who could all but see the future in his development of new ideas that would change whole industries. But for all the cutting-edge sleekness of the Apple he envisioned, there was something decidedly old-fashioned about him. At a time when corporate executives are being picketed by an encampment on Wall Street, Mr. Jobs stood apart. He was not some hired gun CEO looking to bump up the stock price a few points before unfurling a golden parachute. He was a captain of industry the likes of which we see far too little of in today's America.
The average American business leader is about as admired as Congress these days, thanks in part to sky-high CEO compensation amid a dismal economy. Yet Mr. Jobs was beloved by the public, and not because of his good works or sparking personality. He didn't pursue global philanthropy on the scale of his great technology contemporary, Bill Gates, and he was, by all accounts, not much fun to work for. He was an intensely demanding micromanager who was known to humiliate subordinates who failed to live up to his expectations. He was nothing like the corporate leaders in whom most of our livelihoods are, at one level or another, entrusted. He did not go to business school and did not graduate from college. He believed, in a very un-P.C. way (so to speak), that he knew best, not the customer.
Although the way he ran Apple was counter to the way most big U.S. companies work today, his story was uniquely American. He started a company with his high school friend in a garage. He saw an opportunity in the market before other people did. He built a better mousetrap and sold it through a combination of high design and hucksterism. He faltered and was forced out of the company he founded, only to come back a decade later and lead it to unimagined heights.
Mr. Jobs became a rich man — he was the largest single shareholder in another corporation with an iconic founder, the Walt Disney Co. — but he did not appear to be motivated by money. He was famous — the image of him on stage in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt demonstrating the latest iPhone is iconic — but he was essentially a private person. What drove him was his work. In an era when other CEOs justify pretty much anything by saying their job is to maximize stockholder value, Mr. Jobs created one of the most valuable companies in the world the old-fashioned way — by making something people want.
As unique as he was, Mr. Jobs was not the only business leader who has heard a different drummer. America has produced plenty like him before and since, from Thomas Edison to Mark Zuckerberg. But as the nation struggles to get on its feet again, we could certainly use a few more.