The Genius Dilemma

By Sonnenfeld, Jeffrey | Newsweek, January 31, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Genius Dilemma


Sonnenfeld, Jeffrey, Newsweek


Byline: Jeffrey Sonnenfeld

Just how essential is a company's visionary founder? Apple and Google are about to find out.

A chair crashed on the tile floor as a skinny young man rushed over to our table at Michela's, a hot restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. It was Steve Jobs, then just 29 years old, and his haste was not to meet me but to salute my guest, Polaroid founder Edwin Land.

I was surprised to see how enthusiastically the enfant terrible greeted the 76-year-old Land. I was even more surprised that Land didn't recognize Jobs. He awkwardly returned Jobs's greeting by introducing me: "This is Dr. Sonnenfeld -- an expert in CEO succession --you know, drawing organization charts with lots of boxes. And how do I know you?" Still smarting from his recent ouster as CEO of Apple, Jobs sat down and replied, "Dr. Land, I am Steve Jobs and I started a company called Apple but I now run a business called NeXT. I think it's too late for me to learn about succession." After Jobs left, Land commented, "That Jobs is a bright young man -- but he'll never make it back. He's a marketer but doesn't really know his own technology." Of course, Jobs did make it back, and then some, taking Apple's stock from $3 to $350. Now his latest medical leave stemming from a liver transplant has many worried about how Apple can thrive without him. Land, meanwhile, left his company directionless in changing winds.

It is surprisingly difficult being a genius in corporate America. Unbridled (mostly) capitalism makes it possible for a unique few to take an idea, turn it into a company--and, every once in a while, change the world. Along the way, they enrich all of us: consumers who get great products, investors who benefit from big returns, and citizens who need their nation's economy to compete on the global stage. But once these visionaries have moved on, their creations often struggle to retain the founders' magic.

Steve Jobs embodies Apple to many people, a view reinforced by his staggering success as well as the company's flailing when it banished him for a time back in the '80s. Over at Google, meanwhile, a related drama is playing out. When Larry Page and Sergey Brin started the company, they submitted to investors' demand for "adult supervision" and hired tech veteran Eric Schmidt as CEO. But after years of Schmidt running the show and growing the company to once unthinkable heights, there are mutterings inside and outside Google that the company has lost its edge, facing threats from Apple and Facebook. So Page--so integral to what makes Google Google that its central PageRank algorithm is named for him--is pushing his way into the CEO job, leaving Schmidt as chairman.

For Google, Apple, and many other companies built on their founders' vision, this is the genius dilemma. How do you maintain the DNA that the founders have imprinted into the business? And what can the visionaries themselves do to prepare the company for that day? The same gifts and drive that make these people heroic leaders often leave them ill equipped to contemplate what's needed to keep things growing without them. Time and again, they share a disdain for any distraction about their own mortality. Like monarchs, they often believe they can and should reign as long as they live.

And sometimes they have a point. What Jobs has accomplished at Apple is, of course, monumental. With a succession of brilliant, futuristic products--the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad--Jobs improbably turned Apple into the world's most valuable technology company. He has also dragged one industry after another into the future. When iTunes and the iPod arrived, people switched to buying their music online and the dire fears of the Napster days faded. Now Jobs's iPad is forcing publishers of books, magazines, and newspapers to rethink their businesses.

Jobs has pulled this off with an unbending vision and a constant obsession for guarding the quality of everything Apple does. …

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