07 October 2011

Two Steves, One Legacy

You'd think he knew everybody in the world.

Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter were awash yesterday in black turtlenecks and sombre RIPs as the news of Steve Jobs' passing spread like wildfire across the globe.

Grown men admitted to crying. Skeptics found strange praise peppering their commentary.  People who had never met Steve, felt as if a close friend had died.  Such was the influence of the man, through the iconic products he unleashed on an unsuspecting world, that changed our world forever.

I'm one of the few people I know who's never owned a Mac. (Eight years at HP and another three at Lenovo have left me not so much brandwashed as psychologically challenged at stumping for one of Steve's sleek machines.) Yet I've willingly bought MacBooks for the rest of my family. And vividly recall the day I caught grief at the office when I brought a MacBook box to a team meeting and challenged them to design packaging that was half as elegant. 

Steve cared about the little things, you see. He possessed an uncanny ability to look at his company's products from the outside in. He believed that "Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works." 

So do I think this is the end of an era, and the beginning of a slippery slide for Apple?

Well, yes and no.  There will never be another Steve. They broke the mold when his birth was done. Nobody else, I daresay, will approach his (her) life's work with the clarity of vision, the power of purpose, the instinctive decision-making and tolerance for risk-taking as Steve possessed.

But, as Steve said 10 years ago, "You’re missing it. This is not a one-man show. What’s reinvigorating this company is two things: One, there’s a lot of really talented people in this company who listened to the world tell them they were losers for a couple of years, and some of them were on the verge of starting to believe it themselves. But they’re not losers. What they didn’t have was a good set of coaches, a good plan. A good senior management team. They have that now."

The legendary CEO left more than an able deputy to take over the reins when he relinquished his position, with impeccable timing. Steve etched an imprint of his values along the hallways of 1 Infinite Loop. His persona is indelibly seared into the personality of the company. His spirit will forever be the foundation of Apple.

Today, I also think about another Steve. (Sorry, it's not Wozniak.)  Steve Prefontaine was arguably the greatest American middle-distance runner in history who, at the height of his career, held every American track & field record from the 2,000 metres to the 10,000 metres. He was recruited to the University of Oregon in 1969 and trained under legendary track coach Bill Bowerman, who had just founded a running shoe company called Blue Ribbon Sports with Phil Knight, a solid if not spectacular athlete under his charge. (In 1978, the company was renamed Nike.)

"Pre", as he was affectionately called, was an aggressive runner, insisting on going out hard right from the gun, and not relinquishing leads. He once famously said,  "I'm going to work so hard that it becomes a pure guts race. If I can do that, at the end, I'll be the only one who can win it". And win races he did... by hanging on while others faltered and faded. His rare defeats included the thrilling 5,000m final at the 1972 Munich Olympics -- a race he led until the last 150m when he was passed by hard-charging Lasse Viren, Mohammed Gammoudi and Ian Stewart. 

Stadiums would erupt with cheers whenever Pre stepped onto the track. You couldn't help but watch Pre run with your heart in your mouth: He was totally committed in every race; 100% in. He liked to say, "To give anything less than your best, is to sacrifice your gift."

Pre died in 1975 in a tragic car accident, on his way home from a party. He was 24 years old.

Such was the loss to the racing community, and the strength of his personal brand, that roadside memorials sprang up spontaneously. Two movies and a documentary were made about him. And Nike's leaders, who instinctively understood the enduring appeal of his humanity, created TV spots and named a building in their Beaverton headquarters after him. Pre stood for the triumph of the human spirit; and inspired a whole generation of Nike employees to regard their work and their products with more purpose and meaning.

Two Steves, with one legacy: They stood for something, and burned bright. Each in his own time made a difference in his world.  And the brands they are associated with, the people who have been inspired by them, are the better for it.