After Jobs, who will be the next American visionary?

Steve Jobs

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Apple's website turned into a tribute to Steve Jobs moments after his death at 56 was announced.

Steve Jobs helped build an iconic company and then transformed industry and popular culture, much like Thomas Edison or Walt Disney. They possessed qualities that set them apart from other tycoons of industry. Now that Jobs is gone, it may be decades before we see his like again.

Visionary. Uncompromising. Intuitive. Risk-taking. Steve Jobs — the man who helped build a company and used it to transform multiple industries and popular culture — could have been lifted from the pages of a college textbook on how to be a successful CEO.

He was "the most incredible businessperson in the world," Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak told CBS News on Thursday, a day after Jobs' death.

Sure, there are other luminaries doing groundbreaking work in the technology industry: Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos revolutionized e-commerce. Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page transformed the way we find things on the Internet. But to find someone like Jobs, someone who so thoroughly fit the multiple roles of visionary, innovator and cultural icon, you'd probably have to reach for your iPad and search back decades.

"Who's out there today? Gee, the example that [Jobs] set, it's hard to think of anyone," said Saul Kaplan, founder of the Business Innovation Factory, a Providence, R.I.-based network for businesses and organizations.

Jobs belongs on a short list of great modern innovators — alongside the likes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, says Michael Cusumano, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

And while no one discounts the importance of his longtime rival, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Jobs ultimately stands alone, Cusumano says. He adds: "What Gates did was important — he brought cheap, usable software to the masses. But the impact of Jobs is greater."

So where will the next American visionary come from? By definition, it's someone on the cusp of an entirely new industry with an as-yet unrealized potential to change the culture, says Karim Lakhani, a professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in technology and operations management.

"The thing is, if there is a Steve Jobs out there right now, we won't know for the next 30 years," Lakhani says. "He had a wonderful, luscious career starting at the beginning of the PC revolution. He moved computers from the realm of an engineering tool to an object of daily use by individuals of all stripes."

Jobs' unique qualities also narrow the field for potential successors.

"What made him so special? If I had to choose a few words, I would say intuition and focus," says Erik Calonius, author of Ten Steps Ahead: What Separates Successful Business Visionaries from the Rest of Us.

In 1985, after losing an internal power struggle at Apple, Jobs was forced out. A year later, he switched gears and bought the computer graphics unit of Lucasfilm. That company became Pixar, which released the first of its transformative computer-animated films, Toy Story, in 1995.

The following year, Jobs made a messiah-like return to Apple, which had lost significant market share to PCs running Microsoft's Windows operating system. The Cupertino-based company's share price was in the gutter, hovering around $6.

"He came into the company that he founded just as it was about to die," Calonius says, adding that Apple also had way too many products — about 300 — at the time.

"Jobs whittled it down to 50 and then to just a half-dozen that he was really going to concentrate on. He had the intuition to know which ones were the right products to focus on," Calonius says.

Jobs' resurgence is another reason his story is so strong, Calonius says. He compares the Apple founder's return from oblivion to another dreamer who stumbled but recovered to write the most important chapters of his life: Walt Disney. The famous animator's first studio went bankrupt in 1923.

And few CEOs have such close involvement with their products and customers as Jobs did, and it's the thing that helped him turn the impersonal MP3 and mobile phone into cultural totems: the iPod and the iPhone, Harvard's Lakhani says.

"He truly understood the average user's experience with these devices," Lakhani notes. That kind of involvement with the product is something CEOs tend to lose once they've settled into the corner office, he said.

Jobs also had a "disruptive" quality because he understood that constant change was the only way to stay out in front, says Kaplan of the Business Innovation Factory. He set out to create the market, to lead the market, and to let companies follow behind.

"Imagine when Steve Jobs came in and said, 'We are going to open up our own stores to distribute our products," Kaplan muses. "Everyone in that organization at that time was invested in the old model where they distributed through other retailers. And here comes Jobs saying we're going to completely upend that."

The first Apple store opened in 2001 in Tyson's Corner, Va., drawing a crowd of hundreds of people. There are now more than 350 outlets around the world, from Fifth Avenue in New York City to outside the Louvre in Paris.

Innovators like Jobs "are incredibly passionate," Kaplan says. "They have a very strong viewpoint that they are willing to put out there, but they also have this vulnerability because they know that they're missing something. They are constantly looking for that missing thing.

Lakhani recalls Jobs' 2005 commencement address at Stanford University.

He spoke to the graduates about death and advised them not to waste their short time "living someone else's life."

"Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition," Jobs said.

Jobs himself "had the courage to do that when everything was going south, and he had the courage to do it repeatedly," Lakhani says. "That's what makes him great."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio

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