Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison

by Sarah Miller Caldicott

Steve Jobs and Thomas EdisonHow Inspirational Leaders Drive Innovation Power

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” The most frequently cited words ever spoken by Thomas Edison – for better or for worse – stand as a benchmark for the relationship between inspiration and human effort.Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison
But most people need more than 1% inspiration to do anything.  In his genius, Edison only needed 1% inspiration…and our mourned wunderkind Steve Jobs as well.  But the rest of us need much more than 1% to swing us into action.

The mark of an inspirational leader lies in their ability to get others to risk something visible and important…often reputation, fame, money, friendship, or power.  Inspirational leaders move others off dead zero – even people they don’t know, or will never meet.  They exude a contagious authenticity that motivates others to take risks they would otherwise never consider, in pursuit of a goal whose outcome is completely unknown.

Inspirational leadership is a common trait shared by both Jobs and Edison. The lack of inspirational leadership at Apple in Jobs’ wake will be a huge – and probably insurmountable – challenge. It proved to be insurmountable in Edison’s empire of companies following his death in 1931.

But understanding how both these leaders succeeded in inspiring others may improve the odds of Apple’s ability to pick up where Steve Jobs left off.

Edison and Jobs Created Dense Networks

In the US, we admire risk-takers. We admire inventors and entrepreneurs who start from scratch and build something new that offers commercial value and profitability.

What’s different about Jobs and Edison was their sustained ability not only to endeavor risks themselves, but to be catalysts who inspired employees to take risks right along with them…and in doing so, change the very nature of commerce itself.

The endpoint for these risks was never positioned by either genius as financial gain.  Instead, the goals they envisioned entailed creating sweeping changes to the world and our ways of doing things…goals that would improve life on a daily basis.

Scores of business leaders and CEO’s have held a “higher purpose” in their mission, and many enjoy a storied legacy. Consider Walt Disney (Disney), Akio Morita (Sony), Thomas Watson (IBM), or Sam Walton, (Wal-Mart).  But inspirational leaders like Edison and Jobs created value in a different way than these other successful folks.  They created value through big juicy networks of people and resources called “dense networks.”

Dense networks is a term coined by author and University of Virginia professor of Culture and Social Theory, James Davison Hunter. In his book To Change the World, he identifies dense networks as a mechanism for change.  A dense network includes a handful of key components including a passionate focus, diverse skills and competencies related to the passionate focus, a robust outreach network, the desire to disrupt unneeded orthodoxies in core institutions, and – perhaps most importantly – an inspirational leader.

Mavericks to the end, both Edison and Jobs built dense networks around their innovation philosophies. This included a unique work environment, unique product development processes, and deep passion for excellence.  As well, they took aim at “institutions” – concepts (or actual entities) that we either fear, or hold dear – such as the faceless “black box” nature of computers (Jobs), or the desire to disrupt the unquestioned pedestal of knowledge represented by the Royal Academy of Science (Edison).

The dense networks they created attracted a unique type of employee, spawning an environment in which different kinds of risks could be endeavored. The inspiration behind this magnetism can perhaps best be summarized in these words from both visionary leaders:

“My philosophy of life is work – bringing out the secrets of nature and applying them for the happiness of man.  I know of no better service to render during the short time we are in this world.” – Thomas Edison

“I want to put a dent in the universe.” – Steve Jobs, Apple CEO

BY creating dense networks of engineers, scientists, designers, and rabid fans of their brands, both leaders actually came to invent new products and services which revolutionized society, and the way we live. For Jobs this came in the form of iTunes, the iPad and the iPhone; and for Edison via the light bulb, the phonograph, and the movies.

But no dense network can survive without an inspirational leader.  Without the charismatic magnetism that dares people to believe they can conquer what seems beyond their reach, the network will gradually lose steam, and fade.

When considering the power of what Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison created during their time on the planet, consider how you can shape your company in ways that echo these two extraordinary leaders. Don’t dismiss “inspirational leadership” as a mere soft skill. Find the magic button that activates your own ability to inspire. Find ways to activate inspirational leaders within every level of your organization. Let’s hope that Apple can do this, and tap the innovation power that unfolds.

Image credits: blog.hubz; worthview.com

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Sarah Miller Caldicott, is an innovation author and great grandniece of Thomas Edison.  She is co-author of Innovate Like Edison, and author Inventing the Future: What Would Thomas Edison Be Doing Today? Sarah is professional speaker, and the Founder/CEO of Power Patterns of Innovation.

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  1. If Edison had come up with the lighbulb idea in an hour and then spent an hour making it, the lightbulb would never have existed.
    If Jobs came up with an iPhone idea in an hour and spent an hour building it, the iPhone would never have existed.

    You are looking at the 1%:99% ratio backwards. You should not measure how much time you have to make something, and then give up a portion of it to the design/idea. You first come up with an idea, measure how long it took you and be prepared to put in 99 times more time in developing it.

    The 99% perspiration outlines why Edison and Jobs are household names, they had great ideas and spent a lot of time perfecting them. You’re thinking that “most people” need more than 1% inspiration is the very reason you will never be a household name. You don’t measure the inspiration, you measure the perspiration and put the effort in to making your dreams come true. If you’re not prepared to put in the effort, then the inspiration is pointless.

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