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Jobs and Democracy

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Bill Maher joked that Steve Jobs should be allowed to re-build America.
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    (This article was submitted by the author before Steve Jobs' death earlier this year when the Apple Inc. co-founder and former CEO stepped down from his position. While Jobs is no more, the larger picture painted by this article - one that distinguishes corporate success from the successful running of a democratic nation - remains relevant even today.)

     

    Silicon Valley and the entire technology world is buzzing following the recent resignation of Steve Jobs, Apple's co-founder and now former CEO. Jobs is indeed an innovator extraordinaire and several glowing articles have been written about his resignation in the last several days. I thought I will write about a slightly different topic concerning Jobs. Bill Maher, the famous comedian and political commentator made an interesting comment a while back. He said we should let Steve Jobs run America. He credited Jobs with re-inventing the record player, phone, and the computer - all in a matter of 10 years, and joked he should be allowed to rebuild America. I thought it was an interesting perspective on what Jobs and Apple have done lately. Apple has indeed impacted these major areas of our life and pushed technologies in interesting directions, way more than any other company in the last few years. Their status as the largest technology company in the world, surpassing Microsoft is well-deserved and Steve Jobs gets a lot of credit for Apple's renaissance. And based on all the stories out there about his personality and management style, it's a safe bet that he was personally involved in several decisions regarding the iPod, iPhone and iPad. 

     

    Steve Jobs was already a Silicon Valley icon long before the iPod, but what he has done in his second stint with the company has been amazing and has significantly added to his legend. Given all this, I gave serious thought to what Bill Maher said. I even bounced it off of a couple of friends and we discussed the hypothetical scenario of Steve Jobs becoming the president of the USA. Can he outperform our top politicians? Of course, that doesn't sound like too hard a task on paper! Can he do better than President Obama? Why doesn't our government, be it in India or the US, just blow us away with great ideas and programs like an Apple or a Google? The answer to these questions is a single word, a concept we all love and cherish - democracy. While we will never give up democracy as a system of government, we also know that our businesses are not democracies and we are probably better off for it. Sure, public companies do pretend like they are democracies and the stock-holders do have some say on major decisions, but we all know it's not a real democracy. Also, our votes are weighted according to the number of shares we own. In other words, my vote and Bill Gates' vote don't carry the same weight in Microsoft's boardroom, but they do during the US presidential election.

     

    Corporations are dictatorships for the most part. If you pick up any corporate survival book giving career advice, you will see it asks you do whatever your boss wants. As long as you keep your boss happy, she will be happy with you. If you take this approach to its logical conclusion, every employee is basically doing what a CEO wants. People will and should try to shape the CEO's opinion and you can try to do the same with your boss behind closed doors, but conventional wisdom says you eventually toe the company line and say the right things in public if you want a pleasant stay in that company. This is significantly different, even diametrically opposite from real politics and the government. In certain issues, the Democrats and the Republicans will be negotiating behind closed door in good faith, but they will come out and talk tough against the government and the President just to impress their core vote banks. This won’t work in a corporation. This is one of several differences between our governments and our corporations.

     

    Democracy is all about numbers and votes. You need majority support to get anything done. Can you imagine Steve Jobs having to earn more than 50% of his employees’ approval before launching an iPhone? Apple's 40,000 employees probably have 50,000 ideas and if they were allowed to have a say in such matters, they would all be trying to convince Steve that their idea is way better than the iPhone! A leader like Steve Jobs probably wouldn't survive a week as the head of a democratic government. It's a completely different ball game and his innovative ideas will probably get voted down in the Congress unless he strikes a deal to build a bridge to nowhere in Alaska. These deals and negotiations are democracy in a nutshell. So it's naive to assume that the brilliance of people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates will seamlessly translate to the government. Democratic governance involves a different dynamic and only few of our corporate leaders can make that transition. They may have the necessary skills and leadership qualities for government, but the democratic setup will impose a distinct set of constraints that they may not be used to navigating.

     

    We love our democracy. This is not a campaign against democracy - which would be doubly insensitive at a time when people in the Middle East are willing to lay their lives down for it. The point here is that democracy is a double-edged sword. While a viable alternative to a democratic form of government does not yet exist, let’s not underestimate the baggage it carries. It's complicated, expensive, inefficient and sometimes imperfect. Democracy is all about checks and balances and finding a middle ground. This sometimes means endless arguments, selfish campaigns, meaningless delays and lots of political grandstanding. Democracy is often a popularity contest and charisma sometimes trumps talent. These are the costs of democracy and our political systems, both in India and the US, are paying this price for the larger good. While we are perfectly fine with these costs in the political arena, democracy is not the way to run our companies, raise our families, manage our classrooms or operate our prisons. Different arenas require different working paradigms. So we don't need a whole lot of democracy inside Apple, but we can't use a whole lot of Steve Jobs in our government either. I wish him all the best in his fight against cancer, but don't expect brilliant business leaders like Jobs to help us solve our government's debt problems anytime soon.

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