Exit the King

Article excerpt

Byline: Alan Deutschman

How did Steve Jobs become a wizard among muggles? And what will Apple do without its willful inspiration at the helm?

If ever there was a showman who knew how to end on a high note--leaving his awed and adoring audience begging for more--it is the man in the trademark black mock turtleneck. Even as an ailing Steve Jobs announced to the world last week that "unfortunately, that day has come" for him to step down as chief executive officer of Apple, his timing was--yet again--impeccable. In the 14 years since Jobs regained control of his company in the summer of 1997 after a long, bitter exile, Apple shares have increased a stunning 57-fold. Having surpassed rival Microsoft a year ago, Apple's $350 billion in market capitalization places it behind only ExxonMobil as the most valuable company in the world. Apple has made money so quickly and so prodigiously that it holds an outrageous $76 billion in cash and investments--an awesome sum thought to be parked in an obscure subsidiary, Braeburn Capital, located across the California border in Reno because the state of Nevada doesn't have corporate or capital-gains taxes.

In his second time around at Apple, Jobs ultimately achieved what had eluded him in his early years there, from 1976 to 1985, when he was acclaimed as a visionary and a brilliant promoter but wasn't respected as a businessman--not even by his board of directors, who pushed him aside for a more experienced executive. Now Jobs, 56, retires, having closely rivaled (or some might say eclipsed) Bill Gates as the most highly regarded business figure of our times. He proved himself the ultimate willful leader, forging his singular vision through a combination of inspiration, unilateralism, and gut instinct. Jobs didn't just create products that instilled lust in consumers and enriched his company. He upended entire industries. Personal computing. The music business. Publishing. Hollywood. All have been radically transformed because of Steve Jobs.

It's impossible to begin to understand the sources of Jobs's success without looking to his unusual life story. Both his heroic posture as an inspired crusader striving to change the world and his famed passion for thinking differently sprang from the circumstances of his upbringing: like the fictional Harry Potter, he was a misfit, raised by adoptive parents, who ultimately discovered that he was a wizard among muggles. Jobs was born out of wedlock to two wizards, a.k.a. graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison: Abdulfattah Jandali, a Syrian immigrant pursuing his doctorate in political science, and Joanne Simpson, who was studying for her master's in speech. He was adopted at birth by Paul and Clara Jobs of San Francisco. Unlike Harry Potter's guardians, the Jobses were loving, supportive parents, but they were muggles nonetheless--working-class folks rather than the rarefied breed of intellectuals and artists that the teenage Steve envisioned as his own true identity.

Four of the hallmarks of Jobs's future business career--his extraordinary persuasiveness, his constant risk taking, his rare deal-making ability, and his fierce perfectionism--can be traced to his teenage years. The first three are sharply illustrated by his brief episode as a college student: Jobs would become known as one of the most famous college dropouts of our times, along with Microsoft's Bill Gates and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.

But in Jobs's case the "dropout" image is all wrong. He was actually a "drop-in": he matriculated at Portland's Reed College, a bastion of the counterculture and leftist artsy intellectualism, even though he knew his parents couldn't--and wouldn't--pick up the tab. When the first bill came due and went unpaid, Jobs talked the dean of students into letting him stay in the dorms and attend classes for free. That's how strongly he wanted to be at an elite school and obtain its validation that he was indeed a wizard rather than a muggle. …