"Visionary." "Fearless." "Genius." Those are the words that kept appearing over and over again in the many obituaries for Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Everyone agreed: Jobs understood what consumers wanted better than most. He was a transformative leader. Jobs once said he wanted to "put a ding in the universe." He did.
Jobs held deep expertise in one area, computer design, but actively acquired knowledge across different areas, such as animation technology, when he helped found Pixar. It was after he returned to Apple in 1996 that Jobs introduced revolutionary products like the iPhone and iPad.
It's that ability to create what innovation consultant John Kao calls "recombinant mash-ups" that make a difference. Remember the old ads for Reese's peanut butter cups, when the guy with the peanut butter jar collides with the guy holding the chocolate bar and asks, "Hey, who put chocolate in my peanut butter?" That would be a recombinant mash-up, literally. As Jeff Dyer and Hal Gregersen point out in The Innovator's DNA, Walt Disney was the first to combine animation with full-length films; later, he merged storybook themes and amusement parks for the first time. When a boy asked "Uncle Walt" what he did for a living, Disney replied, "I think of myself as a little bee. I go from one area of the studio to another and gather pollen." Like Disney, Jobs went from industry to industry, cross-pollinating ideas in a way that changed history.
In January of 2008, Barack Obama said he wanted to be a transformative president, along the lines of Ronald Reagan. "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path," Obama said, much to the chagrin of the left. Reagan had the depth of experience in different industries that allowed him to become an innovator. Jimmy Carter was not an innovator. Obama, it turns out, is not either. He just didn't have the experience coming into the job.
A majority of Americans think we've been on the wrong track for nearly two years. Most of us want to change the trajectory of America. The Tea Party protests were aimed at putting our broken political system back on track. The Occupy Wall Street movement seeks to redirect our economic system. The volatility of the stock market has been matched by the volatility of the race for president, with a different candidate at the top of the polls every few weeks. People are hungry for economic and political certainty. We want a plan for moving forward, and we're not getting it from Washington.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz recently called on his fellow executives to stop making political contributions to campaigns until elected officials get serious about fixing America's economic problems and reduce the deficit. "Business leaders need to step up and not let Washington dictate a downward cycle in America," he said. There's something else CEOs could do to really step up: become what used to be called "dollar-a-year men."
During times of national crisis—specifically, World Wars I and II—American business leaders used to serve temporarily in high-level government jobs for the salary of one dollar a year, hence the name. Bernard Baruch, for example, was a stockbroker who agreed to serve as head of the War Industries Board during the Wilson administration. Eugene Meyer, CEO of Allied Chemical and later publisher of the Washington Post, served three different presidents through both world wars and ended up as the chairman of the Federal Reserve. During times of crisis in the 20th century, patriotic CEOs answered when their country called.
Well, I'd say that we're now in a time of national crisis. We could use the help of a few visionary business leaders. We need the kind of executives who understand how to disrupt the status quo, who know how to transfer knowledge from one industry to another, who can create transformative change in our political and economic systems. The words that are being used to describe Steve Jobs are exactly what we need in Washington.