With the tragic death of Steve Jobs yesterday, American business lost one of its greatest ever leaders. Jobs was not just a brilliant innovator, but in the words of Apple, “a visionary and creative genius.” He had the unique qualities that can inspire others towards success. I had the great privilege to meet him a few years ago and to spend time at Pixar during the visit of His Majesty the King of Jordan. Steve inspired the King to develop a 3D movie animation industry in his country from scratch, and to create jobs (it was a very successful project). He had the same effect on Israeli entrepreneurs.
This is a time when leadership is particularly important. We lack strong leadership in business and in politics; yet we need inspiration and direction more than ever before. What if the specter of the double recession is all down to a lack of leadership?
Corporations are doing much better than in 2008, it is true. More cash is available and the outlook for many industries has improved. But there is not trust and no conviction that the issues which we face (Greece, creation of jobs, etc.) are being well managed. People think that our leaders have personal and political agendas.
Historically, great leaders have revealed themselves during periods of crisis. The Greek general, Pericles, defined the spirit of Athenian democracy in 431BC in a speech over the graves of soldiers who had been slain by Athens’ enemies. Two millennia later, at the start of World War 2, Winston Churchill gave his first, stirring address to the British House of Commons. “I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
We know that exceptional leaders have charisma, and tend to be speakers who can seduce a crowd. Who could forget Margaret Thatcher’s declaration in 1980, when members of her party opposed her cuts to the public service? “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!” And beyond rhetoric, these figures had another vital quality: to attain their vision they were unafraid of defying the wishes of those whom they led.
A few years ago, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones explored the nature of leadership in the Harvard Business Review. Authenticity, they argued, is central to inspiring others. “Authentic leaders remain focused on where they are going but never lose sight of where they came from.” In business, one famously authentic leader has been Jack Welch, a straight-talker who worked his way up from being a junior engineer to CEO at GE. At his meetings with managers, Welch would harangue them and listen to their views. “The [employees] see all of Jack here,” one observer noted. “The management theorist, strategic thinker, business teacher, and corporate icon who made it to the top despite his working-class background. No one leaves the room untouched.”
So which public figures possess this unique set of qualities today? Instead of feeling nostalgic for icons of the past — for Eisenhower or De Gaulle or a business guru like Welch — we need to seek out the people whom we can trust and admire. We are missing mentors, figures who are able to inspire. People voted for those whom they hoped would bring solutions or at least will fight hard on local and global issues. But they don’t see real leadership.
There is, in public life, a lack of vision and inspiration. And all the more now so without Steve Jobs.