How the search for the next Steve Jobs is ruining Silicon Valley

Originally published October 4, 2021

Apple CEO Steve Jobs was one of the most influential people in the tech world. (James Martin/CNET)

By Ian Sherr

Few people figure in the story of Silicon Valley as prominently as Steve Jobs. After co-founding Apple in 1976, Jobs was famously fired from the company in 1985. In a twist worthy of Shakespeare, he returned a little over a decade later to save Apple from near-bankruptcy, setting it on the path to become one of the world’s most highly valued companies. His is one of the great American success stories.

Jobs still looms large over the tech world, even now, a decade after he died on Oct. 5, 2011, at the age of 56 from pancreatic cancer. His ability to tie emotional stories to his company’s products, which he would reveal during splashy product launches that typically ended with “one more thing,” is widely emulated by executives at companies big and small. As are his top-down leadership style and obsession with secrecy. Some have even adopted their takes on his trademark uniform: black mock turtleneck, jeans and New Balance sneakers.

None of these traits is unusual for an entrepreneur, harking back to the one who built a company that created some of the world’s most influential tech products, including the iPod, iPhone and iPad. Disruptive innovators are often driven to do something different and to test conventional wisdom. And Jobs certainly did that.

“They’re working on things that aren’t just another continuous step,” said David Hsu, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who focuses on entrepreneurial innovation and management. “When it comes to innovation in Silicon Valley, it’s this kind of ‘We’ll follow something off the beaten path.'”

The less-trodden path can sometimes lead to failure, as it did for Jobs in 1985, but it’s one that other Silicon Valley execs have vowed to follow.

His legacy is burned into the backs of the minds of people who feel that success comes first, regardless of niceties or wrongdoing. Sometimes, employees or mentors might think they’ve found the next Jobs-like figure to become a titan of industry, creating the next Apple. In their search, though, poor decisions, bad behavior and fraud have festered, sometimes overlooked. Brilliant and charismatic, if flawed, founders have led companies to meteoric rises, and equally shocking flameouts once they came under scrutiny. Like Hollywood celebrities, a superstar CEO can rise quickly only to fall spectacularly when egregious missteps draw attention. And they could be ruining it for everyone else.

“I keep thinking, is there a way where instead of a brilliant jerk, you can have a brilliant humble game-changer in society?” Hsu said. “We need to hold up and recognize there are many pathways to success and many different ways to contribute.”

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