In the pre-obituary tributes to Steve Jobs — a month ago when he resigned as Apple CEO and we all knew that the end was near — one memorable homage quoted him as saying that he saw his role as “leader.”
Not a manager or chief executive, but “leader” - a term that is bandied around all too frequently in the media-telecom-political-tech world, but is rarely applied accurately.
As many of today’s Jobs’ testimonials acknowledge, the Apple co-founder was a tough, opinionated decision-maker. He was an inspiration to many. He was not focused on the next financial quarter, but rather he was a visionary who was comfortable committing to a long view.
For many years, I’ve lamented the disappearance of iconic “leaders” in the media and telecom industries. Not that we need too many Murdochs, who are household names. But it was grand when the industry had “Malone” and “Turner” to inspire (of instill fear) - and to let the world know what was coming next in cable. No individual should or can speak for the whole industry (OK, maybe the lobbyists think they can do that). But true leaders’ visions can build great enterprises, and they lend a face to put with those ventures. Let’s see if “Pittman” brings a face to Clear Channel as he did, sort of, at MTV and AOL, but not so much at Century 21 Real Estate or Six Flags.
It’s not that the current crop of media CEOs isn’t up to the tasks they face. And it’s not necessary for them all to attain household name status. Yet the complexity of the new media/telecom eco-system would benefit from a few identifiable leaders. The tech sector rode high on names such as Gates, Ellison and Grove during its climb. Now Sergey and Larry at Google are the closest thing that Silicon Valley has to human faces.
The entertainment/communications/information sector was built on names who epitomized their companies and the business they were in: Hearst, Pulitzer, Luce, Sarnoff, Paley, Fox (William, the original studio mogul), Zanuck and the brothers Warner. Customers knew who they were back in an era which didn’t have the kind of business or social reporting we see today. Yet, these leaders were familiar “brands” and customers knew what they were getting — like it or not — from those tycoons’ companies.
Most important, they (or their promoters) created a legendary presence for themselves and their products. So did Steve Jobs.
Jobs never paid much attention to the cable industry. Unlike Gates/Microsoft, Jobs never tried to buy his way into the industry. There was once an Apple cable set-top box prototype, which may have been Jobs’ experiment in feeling out the cable industry - and then leading his company elsewhere. Does anyone think that if Apple actually produced an STB, it would carry a co-branded label or that customers would think of it as device from their faceless MSO?
There’s a lot written about business (and political) leadership these days. I’ll remember Steve Jobs as the leading representative in a world that needs more true leaders who earn public respect for what they accomplish and what they envision.
Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, MD, and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at GArlen@ArlenCom.com