Steve, I wish I knew you

I wish I had met Steve Jobs.

My heroes from the world of business number exactly two: Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. Walt died when I was 5 years old, so it’s not surprising that our paths never crossed. But theoretically, I could have met Jobs. It was not beyond the realms of possibility. Unfortunately, I never got to meet either of them. And for that, I’m immeasurably saddened.

The thing I admired about both of them goes beyond what I have seen in the recent stream of accolades that has issued forth since last week’s news of Jobs’ passing.

Jobs, and Disney before him, had an amazing ability to know what it was we wanted before we knew it ourselves. It wasn’t business or technical acumen, although both men had it in spades. It was the uncanny ability to ride on the edge of reason and intuition while placing bets on the future, getting it right more often than wrong.

If I knew more about them, I suspect I’d add Henry Ford and Thomas Edison to the list, but the fruit of their labors predates me, so I don’t have the same appreciation for what they did in their lifetimes.

Yes, Jobs (and Disney) shaped huge parts of the world we know today. Yes, our lives have been changed thanks to the mortal time they spent with us. Yes, they had passion. But more than anything, they could reach deep inside themselves, draw a spark of intuition and from it, start a fire in our hearts. That gift comes one in a generation, if we’re lucky. In my lifetime, I’ve only seen it twice.

As smart as Jobs was, he had many contemporary counterparts in the IQ department. Bill Gates and Larry Ellison are no slouches when it comes to mental acuity. More recently, Mark Zuckerberg’s intellect has been lauded on celluloid, no less. And anyone who seems to cross Larry Page’s path is awed by the hammering intensity of his engineering brilliance.

But the genius of Disney and Jobs was of a different sort. It came from being able to take our collective pulse, and somehow knowing what would make it quicken. They could pluck unrealized dreams and transform them into the treasured stuff of our lives. It was more art than science, more love than logic, more passion than profit. It was, from our awed viewpoint, magic. It seems to me that Bill Gates and Larry Page have little time for magic.

There have certainly been more financially successful companies. Disney was on the edge of the bankruptcy for much of its history. And when Walt did hit a home run, he quickly ploughed his profits back into his next long shot.

Apple wouldn’t be around today if Microsoft hadn’t come to the rescue in 1997 with a $150 million dollar bail out. That amount seems miniscule today next to Apple’s $370 billion market cap, making it the most valuable tech company in the world (ironically, worth more than half again as much as Microsoft’s $227 billion.)

Jobs and Disney had the ability to create entirely new categories of consumer demand: full length animated features, theme parks, personal computers, computer animated movies, personal music devices, smart phones and tablet computers. Each of these innovations owed much to the personal vision of the leader.

I’m not sure what Apple’s path will be in the future. I suspect they will bear an eerie similarity to Disney after Walt’s untimely departure in 1966, where management asked the same question about every decision – “What would Walt do?” I have no doubt that the words “What would Steve do?” will be heard often in Cupertino. I’m also sure that it will be some time before we see the likes of another Steve Jobs or Walt Disney.

The gift they had is not often given. I’m just thankful that they both chose to share it.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider Octo­ber 13, 2011