Genius can change the world

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Talent “hits the target others cannot hit; genius hits the target others cannot see”, said Arthur Schopenhauer, the nineteenth century philosopher. Albert Einstein, whose name would in the following century become synonymous with genius, illustrated Schopenhauer’s definition. Other clever physicists derived brilliant solutions to complex problems which had bemused less talented men. But Einstein solved problems that others had not really understood existed.

Is there such a thing as a business genius? It is a moot question this month, because in modern times Apple’s Steve Jobs, who died last week, was probably the individual with the strongest claim to that title. History gave us figures such as Thomas Edison, who exploited the discovery of electricity to create a string of previously unimagined commercial products. And Walt Disney, who not only created unforgettable characters, but saw how to turn children’s entertainment into a corporate activity. Henry Ford defined the modern automobile industry and demonstrated the potential of mass production. Had these men not existed, the business world – and daily life – might have been forever different from the one we know.

Schopenhauer might have recognised genius in these achievements: but not, for example, in the accomplishments of the several individuals who are hailed in their respective countries as the inventors of television. The box in the living room was an inevitable outcome of the applied science of the 1920s, which is why the problem was solved by different people at about the same time. They hit a demanding target, but one that was very much in sight.

Alfred Sloan, probably the most talented manager of the twentieth century, did not create General Motors, but he made it possible to run it, something his predecessors had failed to do. Like Bill Gates, who provided IBM with the capabilities required for a personal computer, he solved a problem others had failed to solve, not a problem others had failed to imagine.

Business genius, or the ability to see what others do not and turn that insight into a commercial opportunity, is not the same as managerial capability – the capacity to organise large groups of people to accomplish complex tasks. In practice, these attributes are rarely found together. Edison was a hopeless manager; the irascible, autocratic Ford would prove as inept a chief executive in his later years as he had been brilliant in his youth. By the time he died, Ford had all but run his eponymous corporation into the ground.

Jobs and Apple’s greatest achievement was to bring to market the graphical user interface – the icons and the mouse and the software that made it possible. Jobs did not invent the personal computer – like the television, this was the simultaneous work of many hands. He did invent that interface, which originated at Xerox Parc. The innovation did not prove a commercial success. The strategy of maintaining a closed proprietary system, which would later succeed with the iPod and iPad, confined Apple’s first generations of computers to a niche populated by enthusiasts. The imitative Windows captured the mass market.

But the idea of a computer that required no understanding of computers by its user was a concept of genius. Perhaps talent is better suited to making money, genius to changing the world. Sloan and Gates would become rich men: but we do not remember Einstein, or Newton or Shakespeare or Mozart, for the fortunes they made, and when Apple did eventually make its shareholders rich it was, as so often, by the way.

We still use electric light, drive cars and watch Mickey Mouse; but what of the corporations their creators left behind? Despite the ineptitude of Edison as manager, the General Electric company he established would be the most successful of all businesses in the century that followed. Ford would recover from the dotage of its erratic boss to be a great company once again. And once Walt’s successors stopped asking each other what the founder would have done, they restored the company’s leadership in popular entertainment. The inspiration of the founders lives on in the businesses they fostered. The strength of public response to Jobs’ death suggests this might also be true of Apple.

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