The Folly of Imitating the Great Man (or Woman)

October 2, 2008

As I walked past the crowded biography section of the bookstore the other day, it occurred to me how fascinated we all are by the idea of the great man (and woman). We lap up their stories of triumph, the adversities they tossed aside and the other-worldly lifestyles that have become their rewards. And we are forever curious about the qualities that make these people so special; the vision, creativity, courage, single-mindedness, energy, resilience and in so many instances, the larger than life personalities. In the end, we hope that maybe, just maybe, we can glean and apply tidbits from their career blueprints to our own less than perfect lives.
Quite inconveniently, the reality is that many of these great people are one-of-a-kind characters, a hodgepodge of attributes which somehow combine to brilliant effect but which do not easily deconstruct for the purposes of imitation. Let me illustrate.
Steven Jobs is a great entrepreneur by any standard. He founded, was fired from and subsequently rescued Apple Computer from the grips of professionally managed mediocrity. Under his leadership, Apple has produced a breathtaking array of innovative category-making technologies and a global brand with few peers. He is also the man who bought the animation studio Pixar, a company whose subsequent string of ground-breaking successes lead to its acquisition by the openly envious Disney Corporation, in the process making Mr. Jobs its single largest shareholder. He is a visionary of uncanny clarity, an unrelenting builder, a perfectionist, a true maverick before the term was cheapened by the political crowd. His personal story is no less fascinating. Given up at birth for adoption, a cancer survivor, a Buddhist …..it goes on and on.
Humbling as this list of accomplishments are, it also bears noting that Steven Jobs has also been described as a first class ‘asshole’ who parks his Mercedes in the company handicapped parking spot, micromanages with the detail and intensity of an electron microscope, and demeans people in public whenever and wherever the occasion strikes him. Obsessive, tyrannical and with an explosive ‘filthy temper’, he has been described as an elitist who characterizes employees in binary terms, either as ‘geniuses or bozos’. For most employees, life with Steve is ‘a constant hero-shithead roller-coaster”. His orbit includes both die-hard loyalists and scores who have fallen off, jumped off or been pushed off his amusement ride.
As the case of Steven Jobs and so many others illustrates, the gift of a given attribute is often offset, balanced if you will, by glaring weaknesses and/or idiosyncrasies in others. In fact, strengths can be so strong, so pure that they become eccentricities or weaknesses onto themselves. Technical brilliance can leave little room for business or people skills. Market and customer intuitiveness can disable operational proclivities. Purity of forward vision can be accompanied by peripheral blind-spots such as arrogance, autocratic or micromanaging leadership styles, volatility, hubris, and even eccentricities which limit overall effectiveness. Greatness is thus more reasonably viewed as a magical blend of balancing and conflicting attributes, one almost impossible to untangle for the purposes of emulation.
In a recent biography of the legendary Canadian helicopter entrepreneur Craig Dobbin, the author notes the challenges for all of us in attempting to imitate the great man, “The trouble is that to succeed at Craig Dobbin’s level, you have to be Craig Dobbin. And we will never, in our lifetime, see anyone like him again”.