Apple is undoubtedly the gold standard of today’s tech world. In fact, it’s probably the gold standard of American industry at the moment. Its innovative design, user interface, and ecosystem make it a titan in any category it enters. And it’s clear that Steve Jobs was the reason Apple rose to its current heights from the brink of bankruptcy. In the wake of his death, HBR espoused his greatness — something I’ve done as well. And he was great. Steve Jobs has likely been our generation’s most important leader in the world of business. But Steve Jobs is not the most important leader from the world of business. While Jobs should be who MBAs and industrial designers try to emulate, I’m not sure he’s who we should idolize. That respect should be bestowed on someone we talk less and less about, Bill Gates.
Both Jobs and Gates had immeasurable impacts on the world. Apple ushered in the era of personal computing in many respects. Microsoft’s platform made it possible for a generation of computer scientists to learn and flourish. Apple seems to have perfected the art of delivering fantastic consumer products. Microsoft has worked diligently to make the enterprise more and more efficient. Regardless of which camp you fall in today, it’s impossible to deny each corporation’s contribution. Jobs and Gates each deeply respected each other’s contributions.
But at the end of his life, Steve Jobs worried about Apple, Inc. Walter Isaacson quoted the wizard of Cupertino saying, “Hewlett and Packard built a great company, and they thought they had left it in good hands. But now it’s being dismembered and destroyed. I hope I’ve left a stronger legacy so that will never happen at Apple.” At the end of his life, Jobs saw his legacy as Apple.
Bill Gates stepped away from Microsoft in 2006 and, despite the company’s growing troubles in the face of the mobile disruption, has devoted his genius to solving the world’s biggest problems, despite the fact that solving those problems doesn’t create profit or fame.* Gates committed his talents to eliminating diseases, increasing development standards, and generally fighting inequality.
Since 1994, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation amassed an endowment of over $31 billion in funds to fight the world’s most difficult issues. But it hasn’t merely accumulated funds, the foundation has already given away over $25 billion. Those aren’t trivial numbers. In seventeen years, the foundation has raised and given away more than one-tenth of Apple’s extraordinary market capitalization. While the developed world takes things like clean water, basic healthcare, and the availability of food for granted — there are billions of human beings that don’t have such fundamental resources.
Ghandi famously said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I don’t doubt that, in recent years, both Gates and Jobs did just that. Jobs made the world more beautiful and the billion of us with resources loved him for it. Gates is making the world ideal, and the billions of us with no voice will be forever impacted.
Yesterday, I read a note Gates wrote to members of the Harvard community. It speaks for itself:
I hope you will reflect on what you’ve done with your talent and energy. I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you work to address the world’s deepest inequities, on how well you treat people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.
Those are not the words of a leader of business. Those are the words of a leader of people. Those are the words of an idol.
As much as I love Apple, Inc, I would happily give up my iPhone to put food on the plates of starving children. Steve Jobs turned his company into a decade long leader in the truly new space of mobile computing. Bill Gates decided to eliminate malaria. Who do you think we should be putting up on a pedestal for our children to emulate?
*While you might disagree with that claim, a quick reference of Google trends shows that since leaving Microsoft, Bill Gates star has dramatically faded — and in 2010 was eclipsed by that of Jobs.