You’ve all heard the examples of why Steve Jobs or Apple should be the benchmark for whatever it is your doing. In fact, it’s become so common that we’d be forgiven for thinking that their playbook has become the new testament. Trust me, as a designer, we hear it all day, every day from a whole variety of ignoramus.
So much so called ‘thought leadership’ out there is based on this narrow and frankly boring suite of references: Apple, Facebook, Tesla AirBnb, Uber, Amazon etc. Not only are we constantly asked to learn from them through a constant barrage of ‘LinkedBook’ status updates, there are endless key note speeches and consultancies asking us to to ‘be like Mike’ (or more accurately Jobs, Zuckerberg, Musk or other celebrity entrepreneurs.
It’s not that there isn’t a great story to be told, or that their successes are not worth taking note of, but personally I’ve become benign to it and I look forward to industry finding a new vernacular. But guess what — for all the advice that is based on following in the footsteps of these great leaders or innovators (ignoring the obvious irony in that statement), they are all missing the most important point of reference:
NONE of these guys were raised in a world where being hyper-digitally connected was the norm.
These great leaders have literally terraformed that world for the rest of us to live in. So it begs the question — do you need to have a ZuperFone X2, let AI run your business or drive an electric car to be an innovative business leader? If Jobs, Zuckerberg and Musk were able to do what they have done without the aid of those things already being in existence, why would we use the products of their imagination as the basis for our own destiny? Sure, we do/should use these amazing innovations for the value they have created, but they are now a state of utility and it’s time to move on to the next innovation.
The question is whether you are waiting for somebody else to do that, or doing it yourself. I bet the automotive manufacturers are wishing they hadn’t lobbied against electric motors for so long, only to have to now over invest and play catch up. We certainly know that banks still haven’t gotten a grasp on how to marry changing consumer behaviour and fintech with their crumbling institutions. And we all know how much media industry regrets laughing at social broadcasters. No matter the industry, the opportunities and threats from (digital) disruption are real and active. I can’t think of one that was able to stave it off by following somebody else ideas, products or even people. You have to own the problem and do something about it yourself.
Our neauvau role models didn’t grow up dreaming through an iPad screen, they did that looking at real the stars of the window. They didn’t turn to a bot for a advice, they got that people they trusted. They didn’t put all their eggs on a blockchain, they invented it. I find it more than a little odd that we would look to use the technologies of this cohort as the basis of our personal development and leadership journey, particularly when it comes to raising our children.
If anything, the best way to create the next generation of Musks and Jobs would be to expose our children to as much of a creative thinking and free spirited upbringing as possible, taking away all previous constructs of rigidity. This would give them the opportunity to seek comfort and inspiration in the world around them and apply their own immersive experiences to improving what they see and sense. It might not be in everybodys gift to reach that level of success or fulfilment from it, but if they don’t think and create more, they will continue to waste time regurgitating the past only to forget it by adulthood anyway. Sure, some will then gain the independence and freedom to innovate again, but the rest will expect to simply fold into the industrial workforce — only it won’t exist anymore!
If we continue to educate them on old fashioned ideas, we will continue to have only small numbers of successful innovations, rather than an entire generation of progressive thinkers. That would result in the same pattern as previous revolutions and just like Roman conquerors, locomotive engineers and oil industrialists, we’ll have a discrepant society where we are expected to laud the few, whilst the many follow them.
So does that mean these leaders are bad examples? Of course not. In fact, if you were to amplify my point to the brands/organisations that are synonymous with their eccentric demigods, you see that most are actually innovative new forms of human expression — not a technology for the sake of it.
Fundamentally, Facebook (and WhatsApp) serves as a platform for inter-person connectivity. Snapchat appeals to our sense of fun and social banter. Tesla appeals to our need to conserve the environment and become free from fossil fuel dependancy. Space X appeals to our desire to explore the dangerous and unknown in the hope of discovery. Even something as seemingly dull and technical like cryptocurrency appeal to our growing sense of revolt against being controlled by banks, governments and the money markets; it’s certainly not full of potential because it is practical to use and understand that’s for sure. The decentralisation and traceability is a bigger concern for disruption to the established financial markets than the cyber risks are to consumers.
For me, having heard so much rhetoric on these success stories, the only one that is loud, clear and genuinely actionable is to develop your children to follow a sense of purpose and do something that appeals to the human condition. Building a future based on todays technology stack or using a marketing strategy that doesn’t fit your situation is a recipe for mediocrity at best. And I’m being kind.