You have a mission

June 07, 2010

It struck me the other day, as I was calmly reading through John Gruber’s excellent blog, Daring Fireball. There was a link to Steve Jobs’ appearance last week at the “All Things D” conference, where the Apple CEO sat through a 100 minute long Q&A session with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher.

The range of topics that were addressed was very wide and, surprisingly, Jobs was very straightforward in his answers. This is all the more surprising given Jobs secretive nature. As an example, I’ve decided to show you one of the clips that are available from the “All Things D” website:

In this video you can see how Steve answers clearly, without dodging the question or playing nice. This kind of behavior extended during the 100 minute session. This is not to say that he answered every question, obviously. The nature of his job demands some secrets to be kept, but all in all, it was a very satisfying experience to watch.

To me, it speaks volumes about the quality of Jobs as a leader. He personifies his company in a way that very few CEO’s are able to do. Jobs is self assured, calm and reasoned. He gets this attitude from the conviction that he is in this planet doing the one thing he does best. He KNOWS this is his mission. And Apple is his legacy.

Then the next day, Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer stepped on stage. John Gruber linked to another very interesting article in Daring Fireball comparing both CEO’s, their demeanor, and the economic performances of their companies under their respective command. While the article’s bussiness reasoning and the tools used in the comparison could be debatable, the differences between both leaders can not. The contrast between them is as stark as it could possibly be.

Let me put it as clearly as I can: I don’t like Steve Ballmer. He strikes me as aggressive, arrogant and, above all, as someone that doesn’t give a damn about what he’s doing. It’s as though he somehow found himself in charge of the biggest software company in the planet and decided what the hell, let’s  see how this goes….

Leaders are not like that. As Napoleon once said: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”. Well, Ballmer has made not one, but a few too many mistakes in his time as Microsoft’s CEO. His company failed to adapt to the Internet era, and now finds itself lagging behind as others innovate. If not for Windows and Office, Microsoft would be in serious trouble. Under Ballmer, they tried to compete in the music and phone markets, only to fail miserably. All this from the technology company with the biggest amount of resources at its disposal.

This is not to say they’re doing poorly, obviously. If you do the numbers, they’re still a huge company. But in the past they were driving the industry forward, and now they’re trying desperately to catch up with it. Ballmer has surely done many things right as CEO, but his achievements pale in comparison to those of his predecessor. This visionary literally laughed at Apple’s iPhone, the phone that changed the whole industry:

Then, he attempted to mock the iPad by sponsoring a conspicuously similar device from HP (just shy of a rip-off, actually), just weeks before HP canceled the project entirely:

The list goes on. In the same “All Things D” conference, he even dared to poke fun at the iPad again, a device that’s selling like hotcakes (2 million already sold, which represents a rate of 1 every 3 seconds since it launched). All this while Microsoft had nothing to show for itself. Windows based tablets are simply laughable compared to the iPad, Windows Mobile is lagging behind Android and iPhone OS, and in the music industry the Zune is… well, nevermind.

This man is hurting Microsoft even more than Apple is. When a company is run by a man without a mission, things invariably start to go south sooner rather than later. There’s a huge difference between going wherever life takes you without asking; and acting out of conviction, moved by sheer force of will.

The best part is, this applies for everyone, not just CEO’s. You have been given a set of skills that make you unique. You have decided to invest your precious time and effort to develop a series of talents that set you apart from the rest. What you should ask yourself is: “What do I do best?”. Maybe you care deeply about others and firmly believe that you can help them with your work. Maybe you have a unique insight into what makes people tick, and can get the best results out of a team. Or maybe you code like Neo because you can SEE the Matrix. I don’t know. This is a question that only you can answer. But once you know how you work, once you know what you’re supposed to do, the real fun begins.

Then the question becomes, “What is my mission?”

And the answer is the ride of a lifetime.