Steve Jobs, Superman

What happens to Apple now that Steve Jobs is gone? Check out this 2009 post from Chris Dixon that compares Apple and Steve Jobs to Sony and Akio Morita titled MAN AND SUPERMAN.

Akio was famous for slamming focus groups, instead focusing on building things that consumers didn’t know that they want until it already exists. Steve Jobs felt the same way. Few consumer electronics companies have that kind of courage.

Reprinted in full below, with his permission:


There are two broad philosophical approaches to explaining the forces that drive world events. The first one is sometimes called the Great man theory, neatly summarized by the quote ”the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” This view was famously espoused by the philosopher Hegel and later Nietzche, who called such great people Ubermenchen (“supermen”).

The alternative view argues that history is largely determined by a complex series of societal, political, institutional, technological and other forces. This view argues that great people are more a product of their time than the times are a product of them.

You can apply these theories to companies, in particular to the founders of technology companies who keep their companies great long after their “natural” life cycle. Most successful companies start with one great product and ride its growth but fail to pull off a second act.

The companies that defy this natural cycle are invariable run by “supermen” (or women). Akio Morita founded Sony in 1946 and was a very active CEO until 1994. At the time he left, Sony had a $40B market cap. Today it is valued at $28B. Akio had an incredible run of hit products: the first transistor radio, the first transistor television, the Walkman, the first video cassette recorder, and the compact disc. Akio ran Sony based on his intuitions. For example, he ignored focus groups that hated the Walkman, saying:

“We don’t ask consumers what they want. They don’t know. Instead we apply our brain power to what they need, and will want, and make sure we’re there, ready”

Steve Jobs co-founded Apple in 1976. He was pushed out in in May 1985 when the company was valued at about $2.2B. He returned in 1996 when Apple was worth $3B. Today it is worth $169B. Jobs famously micromanages every product detail and like Akio makes decisions based on intuitions.

Bill Gates was the co-founder and CEO of Microsoft, building it to an astounding $470B market cap. Under him, Microsoft had multiple acts, among them: DOS, Windows, Office, and enterprise server software. Since Steve Ballmer became CEO, the company’s value has declined to $223B. I’m sure Steve Ballmer is a smart and passionate guy, but he’s no superman.

Some observers like the author Jim Collins think great companies are all about culture, not a singularly great leader. Collin’s “built to last” case study companies included Circuit City and Fannie Mae, both of which have been catastrophic failures. His “portfolio” has underperformed to S&P.

It is convenient to think you can take greatness and bottle it up and sell it in a book. In fact, life is unfair: there are geniuses and then there are the rest of us. When great leaders go away, so does the greatness of their companies.

47 thoughts on “Steve Jobs, Superman

  1. SHIOK says:

    Thanks for sharing this interesting article.

  2. “When great leaders go away, so does the greatness of their companies.” True.

    Its because once a man starts getting recognized as superman, everyone starts looking at him/her for answer. With the lose of superman, there is sudden void in the ecosystem and companies are bound to slow down, un till they find their next superman.

    And yes superman is a rare bread.

  3. “When great leaders go away, so does the greatness of their companies.” – that’s the moral of story.

    Because a lot of suits are gonna think that doing whatever they want (because the public doesn’t know what they want) is the answer. Which makes as much sense as the nuts that think that they are crazy but that’s OK because Galileo was deemed crazy in his time.

    Jobs was unique because he was RIGHT more often than not, not because he could be hard headed and authoritarian.

    I mean, go ahead and cut off your ear – see if all of a sudden you start painting like Van Gogh.


  4. dchana says:

    I think great leaders also benefit from the era in which they are in that allowed them to make things happen. Timing is like a wave, your impact depends on whether you are at the top of the wave or at the bottom.

  5. Aaron Rowe says:

    It drives me nuts when the board of a huge tech company appoints a truly vanilla leader instead of taking a gamble on someone who could be a visionary. Do you have any thoughts on how a board can spot visionary leaders?

    • How can a board spot visionary leaders? Look for visionary leaders. Most of them are running their own companies, unless they’ve been forced out. Look for a track record of visionary products that have been delivered.

  6. The_Big_K says:

    I think founders of the companies are usually the ‘supermen’. They are passionate about their companies and have the vision to grow the company to the levels others (a hired CEO) can’t imagine.

  7. pwb says:

    Is there a case to be made that Apple could thrive going forward? For example, I bet Tim Cook could put out a $600 iMac with Apple margins and build quality (18″, small hard drive. etc). Is it possible that Apple is finally going to do something great (and profitable) on the web (maybe iCloud, maybe not)?

  8. QD says:

    It is sad that Steve went so early, and clearly he touched so many. But. This repeated quasi-deification seems picture perfect Valley excess.

    This sums up my thoughts somewhat elegantly:

  9. Johny Miric says:

    I think we are going bit over the top with this Steve Jobs mania. I love the guy, his vision and his products, but the fact is that on end of the day he, modern medicine and modern technology have failed to save his life. I’m sure that he would give away all his fame, power and money to be able to spend another 50 years with his family. We all have to work on improving our life all together and not just gadgets to play with. Once a person comes with solution for us to live 100-200 years in full health than I would call him/her a superman.

  10. I believe great leaders inspire greatness in others. I believe great companies keep moving forward even after the “Superman” is gone. This is because the team has become a superteam in of themselves. Steve Jobs was a great visionary and a very very good leader but it still remains to be seen if apple can keep moving forward now that he’s gone.

  11. Matthew says:

    In the tech world steve was a superman but to limit his effect to just one genre would be foolish. I agree with Jonny above in parts that at the end of the day modern medicine and technology could not save him but in actual fact his products apple have contributed to overall progress in a wide range of areas including health and medicine. Look at how many people now jog with an ipad on their arm, track their runs or gym session on an iphone app and have less RSI’s because of how the iphone is so ergonomically friendly and in general are healthier as they can work around with their device (ipad, iphone) now instead of being glued to their office chair. Sure, steve like all humans was not truly invincable but who is. Sometimes life can fail on any one of us at any minute, regardless of how successful we were in our life.

    • Johny Miric says:

      Yes, many people use gadgets to help them with their health but I personally don’t use any gadget to keep myself fit. Chinese medicine, for example, can provide you far more accurate diagnosis and solutions without any piece of technology, even without touching you in some cases. Western people rely a lot on technology to save their lives but Steve Jobs case is showing that modern medicine is greatly limited. I know people who could save Steve’s life but, 1. It’s impossible to deliver this information to the people of his level. 2. He wouldn’t believe in any other method except modern technology. And that was his main mistake. When it comes to health you have to find answers in natural methods, everything else is short lived or limited.

      • After the initial cancer diagnosis “Jobs resisted his doctors’ recommendations for evidence-based medical intervention for nine months, instead consuming a special alternative medicine diet to thwart the disease” (from wikipedia)

        • Erlend says:

          Yeah, alternative medicine might as well be what eventually killed him. If he hadn’t waited nine months before starting proper treatment the first time around, who knows, he might have still been with us.

        • Johny Miric says:

          I’m sure he knew what he was doing. He is the guy with money, he could buy any doctor, treatment or equipment, but he went for alternative solution and I respect that, I would do the same. But of course there are different alternative methods and they all provide different results. What I know for sure is that I would never take medication, chemotherapy or go to operation. There are so many powerful and natural methods out there.

        • Johny Miric says:

          What modern medicine don’t understand is that behind every sickness is certain behavior and the way of thinking. If you change the behavior and the way of thinking the sickness will disappear. Unfortunately, diets will rarely change our way of thinking and that’s why his treatment failed. But it would be same with classical treatments. They are just dealing with surface of the sickness but none of them will remove the root.

        • Erlend says:

          So basically what you’re saying is that cancer patients are dying because they “think the wrong thoughts”? That children in Africa are dying of cholera because they have the wrong outlook on life?

          I wish people like you would one day wake up and come join reality with the rest of us, you’re a danger to yourself and the people around you.

  12. dauwkuk says:

    I’m surprised that no-one has said the obvious… Techcrunch/Arrington 🙂

  13. But who can I sell my iMac to, if nobody likes Mac products anymore?

  14. I really think alot of people are forgetting that yes, without Jobs apple may start to loose it’s halo. But it’s technology! That’s never a bad thing, all it’ll do is inspire the next “superman” to do it better.

    I think people seem to forget it’s the products/product-ecosystems that are released that are important, not the brand they come from.

  15. – When great leaders go away, so does the greatness of their companies.

    In Jim’s other book – Good to Great – he defined the Level 5 leader as people who build companies that will outlast their time at the helm. I think Jobs was a Level 5 leader (I would even open a new level just for him if I could).

    Somehow I have the impression Apple will not decline but rather he has succeeded in building a brand with a great culture and was successful into passing some of its spark to the next generation at Apple.

  16. longestway says:

    What Johny Miric said x 10

  17. harry says:

    When great leaders leave so does the greatness of their companies. Agreed.

    However, I don’t think SJ was a great leader. I think he was a monumental leader – and like all monumental leaders (I’m sure you can think of at least one) his vision reached a critical mass that has transcended him and permeates through his organisation, particularly in the current leadership and in the leaders who will follow.

    I believe he has established a new paradigm for excellence that can be embraced and built upon into even greater achievements. His mantle is there for anyone who has the courage to put on.

  18. Red Feet says:

    Where did you het the market cap values from, they seem to be outdated or just incorrect.
    Compare with

  19. Intriguing article. Of course, there are significant differences between Jobs and the other supermen mentioned, not least of which being Jobs’ keen awareness of his impending mortality. Apple was frequently criticized for its lack of a succession plan, but to my eye that’s always been a matter of absence of evidence not equating to evidence of absence. No one can listen to his Stanford commencement speech and not be impressed with Steve’s realism about the matter, and AAPL’s good performance during his long absences stand as testament to his team-building talent.

  20. Basil says:

    The change in market value was driven by more than one innovator. It’s the strength of their innovation and management along with the market conditions that give rise to the massively successes like Apple and Microsoft. Move Bill Gates’s birthday up 30 years and he wouldn’t have made quite the splash, even though he’d have been the same person.

  21. Wilbur says:

    1. GE
    2. IBM


  22. florian says:

    In light of the text spiked with superlatives I thought I’d point out a spelling error.
    It’s “Übermensch”, not “ubermenchen”. A menchen, which would be pronounced like Männchen, means to belittle a Man by calling him ‘little man’. Please continue.

  23. Ian Fogg says:

    Absolutely fantastic post. Love the mix of the role of the individual in history vs societal & economic trends.

    The COO of the company I worked at in September 2008 repeatedly enthused about Collins’ Good to Great and why everyone should read it. As a new hire, through an acquisition, I was a little startled to see that Fannae Mae was among the companies picked out as a blow out success. Ditto Circuit City.

    I felt rather an outlier, shall we say. It was particularly not great as we were supposed to be a research based consultancy…

    To work out which US publicly quoted company this was, follow the link to the bio on my site…. The senior exec team there is virtually unchanged and the COO is still in place.

  24. I always thought that quote was so true and the exact opposite to what any marketing guru will tell you.

  25. sachin bhinge says:

    steve job was great. His company was great. But i think problem is are we going to say someone superhuman just bcoz he made multibillion industry? Someone is going to make successful companies at different times. If apple and microsoft don’t survive some other companies will take over from that. Steve jobs made products which made apple rich. He had scrapped all the products which was not successful in market, regardless of its quality. So great companies are market driven and not that great companies drive market. If apple iphone wouldn’t have successful in market , would steve had still made it just becoz he liked himself and it was perfect. In india thre are 600 million mobile users and iphone has to touch even 1 million sell in india. Rest of phone makers who make phones at affordable prices are actually companies who changed life of people. If microsoft wouldn’t have made windows run on any ibm clone all the technology sink would not happened. Look at all the banks shops and companies got networked and what they use… Windows.not mac. For comman man Who is great man ,who made ford cars affordable or one who made rolls royce and likes. All said, i not underistimating steve jobs and his achievements. My point is do we need to judge people on just what kind if companies and products they made.

  26. Shadowlayer says:

    So Mike’s point is that Apple is going to be worth at best half what it does now, and when I say at best is because that company did have a heyday followed by a catastrophe

    And right now the growth of android is very similar to that of Windows in the mid 90s

    If I had Apple stock I would be selling it, ASAP

  27. If you’re going to give the title of superman to Steve you have to give it to Bill Gates too because he easily had as much effect on the world as Steve and is now in the process of giving it all back too.

  28. David Nguyen says:

    Akio hit the nail on the head with that quote. This is the exact reason why Nintendo and Apple are successful. They don’t focus test and they knew people would love their products.

  29. Have you read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell? It has pretty convincing counterpoints that while talent certainly plays a role, some people are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both born in 1955, which put them at just the right age for the computer revolution. Bill Gates was incredibly lucky to have access to one of the first machines that let you iterate on programming much faster than previous models in 1968 when he was only 13. There’s anecdotal evidence galore on both sides. Outliers actually brings in some statistical evidence, such as the propensity for the “best” hockey players to be born in January, simply because it meant they were slightly older and got into better leagues as children, which meant they received more training, etc.

    In summary: I disagree, and I recommend checking out that book. ;o)

  30. pwlm says:

    You are wrong about Steve Ballmer (or just trying to be nice).
    The guy is a goddamn idiot with mentality of a used car salesman.
    He’s been nothing but an unmitigated disaster.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: