Steve Jobs, Greatness, Hurricane Irene, and the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

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I had every intention of writing about tomorrow’s Gospel, i.e., the cross and Peter’s objection to it.

Instead, I am here with Chuck the Siamese Cat, awaiting the predicted hurricane to the New York area.  Currently, it is not raining – though it has several times today – and the trees seem only mildly ruffled.  Chuck and I fully expect to see birds flying upside down outside our window and that will be our cue to shut down and repair to a more secure location.

Instead of the Gospel, however, and appropriate religious thoughts, I am reflecting upon the phenomenon of Steve Jobs and what he has meant to the world as we know it.  Jobs has resigned his leadership of Apple Computer Inc. and we are guessing that his pancreatic cancer has reasserted its domination of his body – as it seems always to do.  His resignation barely caused a hiccup in the stock market and everyone seems to agree Apple will be fine under new leadership if not, let us face it, as creative.

Creativity is, of course, exactly the point.  Jobs’ leadership has been the subject of many management studies – most of which focus on the fact that he is a micromanager who cares very little about “consensus” – which popular management literature sometimes posits as the ultimate standard for the rest of us.  In church circles, at least, “consensus” leadership has become the ideal.  I suspect there is no sin so great as perceived “unilateral” decision-making or presenting a plan of action that has not been officially signed off on by all those who claim a stake in the outcome.  In the law, by contrast, the notion of “procedural due process” arose so that everyone may be seen to have been heard – regardless of whether their views controlled or even influenced the final decision (IMHO).

How many meetings and retreats have many of us sat through in which the facilitator repeats the mantra:  “’We’ is smarter than ‘I.’”  Today’s Wall Street Journal (I know, I know) takes issue with this, pointing out in one place that “[G]roups can be great –for dodgeball and barn-raising.  But innovative ideas come from individuals.”[1]

Which brings us back to Steve Jobs, the subject of Steven Johnson’s splendid article in today’s Wall Street Journal.[2]  Johnson had me, easily, from his first sentence on how the purchase of his first Mac changed his life.  Johnson bought his in 1986, his freshman year of college.  But I got mine in 1985, when I worked for the Department of Economic Development in the City of New York.  The City, in the first flush of how great it would be to empower deputies and managers with desktop computers, hired an IBM consultant who had a contract to outfit all of us with PCs.

Instead of an IBM, I somehow managed to convince the IT department that I should have, not a PC, but a MacIntosh – about which I knew nothing beyond its own exciting advertising copy.  And that was the beginning of my own geekdom.  While everyone else attended classes on how to use their new computers, I was left to open my own boxes and set up my own computer and figure out how to use it.  And I was the only one able to create product almost immediately – not because I was smarter than everyone else, but because Mac was.  During the first week, when I ran into trouble getting an emergency position paper printed the night before a City Hall meeting, I called Cupertino and the technicians walked me through a solution.  I’ve had every Mac since then and now work on two “differently-abled” laptops, plus an iPad 2 and an iPhone 4 (and, yes, I have a Classic iPod just for music).

The Original "Electronic Toaster" in all its' 128k Glory

Steve Johnson talks in his article about the Mac being “a machine [he] wanted to live in” and how he was, before long, “creating page layouts for … student philosophy journals” and designing research tools using the “visionary Hypercard application….”  The truth is the Mac – which is to say, Steve Jobs and his vision — made us all brilliant because Jobs married, as he himself put it, “technology and liberal arts, … [technology] with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

I’ve read elsewhere of Jobs’ insistence upon doing things “his way” and following his own vision for what products should look like and feel like and do, and about his snarkiness with his own staff when they didn’t “get” what he was thinking.  Johnson himself makes the point that, in addition to brilliance, “invention is a collaborative art.”  It is true, I think, that all ideas profit from feedback and the insights of others, but, it seems clear also that genuine, world-changing innovation probably is not a project of consensus.

Which actually does bring me back to Jesus and the vision he insisted upon with his disciples – giving no quarter whatever to their feedback and objections and refined ideas.   As a colleague of mine has asserted, Jesus never once turned to his disciples and asked:  “what do you think we should do now?”

Without meaning to suggest that Apple has anything at all to do with the Kingdom of Heaven (although…), tomorrow’s Gospel is a case in point of Jesus’ vision prevailing over his disciple’s notion of what would be good enough.  He was not a consensus leader.

And having said all that, tomorrow, perhaps, assuming the availability of power, I may want to write about what the Gospel does say – or at least what I think it says.

Blessings in the storm – should it arrive.

[1] Holly Finn, “The Dead-End Cult of ‘Burning Man,’ WSJ (August 27-28, p. C12).

[2] “The Genius of Jobs: Marrying Tech and Art.”


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