The Black Swan CEO

The biggest mistake I ever made as an analyst was piece I wrote when the iPhone was introduced that was entitled “What is the Black Swan of Telecom? Hint: It’s not the iPhone.”  I learned two lessons from this episode. One is sadly no longer relevant: never underestimate Steve Jobs.  The second is eternal: never underestimate human creativity in changing a business equation.  I focused too much in my piece on the contractual relationship between device manufacturers and service providers.  That remained unchanged.  What Jobs and Apple focused on was the value creation prospects of a platform anchored by a beautiful—not only functional—smart phone.  That changed many things, including the relative values of Apple and the service providers.

I should have known better, for of the thousands of meetings I have had in nearly two decades in the telecom ecosystem, four stand out most distinctly: the three I had with Steve Jobs and the one with Wynton Marsalis.  I think it is because while both individuals had strong and clear visions, neither had an agenda.  Thus, their words had the kind of integrity that is inevitably difficult when one is discussing, say technical rules regarding unbundling of networks with a CEO whose stock will go up or down depending on the outcome.  Jobs was interested in things government can do (the one meeting held at his request, in the summer of 2007, concerned spectrum policy and an upcoming auction) but ultimately his faith in his ability to provide consumers experiences they would love gave him a Zen like indifference to macro-policy issues.  Both he and Marsalis said things that made the ‘think different’ campaign not a slogan but a lodestone.

What made the meetings perhaps even more memorable was that both had mastered the rare art of being completely transparent and sincere while also being master showman.  At that level, the act is no longer an act.  Marsalis and Jobs combined perfectionism on technical details with a capability of communicating an aesthetic vision that retains the same power, whether in front of a room of thousands or in a room alone, whether it occurred yesterday or over a decade ago.

The discussion today is about which of his products will create the greatest legacy—for my money its how the iPad will lead to the destruction of the textbook industry and eventually to a huge transformation of education.  But the greater legacy will be, I would argue, the passion and integrity with which he communicated his vision, making Jobs the equivalent of a Black Swan for CEOs.  As a parent of 3 children who grew up in a world that Jobs in many ways created, I think his most lasting contribution was the Stanford commencement speech.  It will be a perennial—like the Pixar movies but with even greater power– that generations will send their successors for how to think about the path of one’s life and how to combine a sense of purpose, integrity and creativity that contributes the most to our common humanity.


-Blair Levin, Executive Director


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