Who Will Be The Next Steve Jobs And Sam Walton?

The future of our country depends on the emergence of this next wave of brilliant and innovative minds.
President & CEO, The Enterprise Group
December 29, 2011

Everyone knows about the late Walt Disney, Sam Walton and the recently departed Steve Jobs. Few would argue that these men were giants in their creation of businesses, new ideas and remarkable companies. Bill Gates would be held in that lofty regard, as might his bridge playing friend, Warren Buffett. Some would name Michael Dell, Jack Welch, Richard Branson and Larry Ellison albeit with less enthusiasm.

The question I am asking you to think about is who are the next ones coming—the new icons. If you are waiting for me to name a list, I can’t. The “always-on 24/7/365 news cycle” and investigative reporting continues to expose that some of our would-be icons have “feet of clay.” They are “mere mortals” and “Fallible Human Beings"—but aren’t we all? Even the great ones had their flaws, but their greatness overshadowed their quirks.

These days, most famous people are athletes, entertainers or political figures—but that is not the class of people I am looking for. Their fame comes from their individual skills, talents, team accomplishments and media-driven celebrity.

I am looking for the MVPs of wealth creation, the builders of great new enterprises that will shape America’s future. I am also looking for women, because certainly the “fairer sex” has risen high enough on the corporate ladder to merit equal consideration.

Who are they? Are Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google in that class? Is Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com a candidate? How about Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame, or Meg Whitman, founder of eBay? I am not just choosing names to make a list; I am struggling to make a list that I hoped would be much longer.

The heads of major financial institutions are all tainted by the recent financial/subprime crises, so even the ones who remain (Jamie Dimon, for example) might not make the level of iconic hero. I know from reading Fast Company that there is a whole new generation of brilliant people making their way into contention—but none of them have yet come close to the pinnacle of Disney, Walton, Jobs and Gates.

Why am I posing this seemingly odd question? Because your future, my future and the future of our country rides on the emergence of this next wave of brilliant, talented, eccentric, dedicated, monomaniacal geniuses. I know I have omitted many great names, but that is not the point. The point is that if you have read this far, you are now thinking about who should be on the list—and why.

The youth of America needs role models desperately—and I do not mean athletes, actors, musicians or politicians. As talented these people may be, they don’t always model the right kinds of behavior.

In closing, I want to add one more name to the list, one that may surprise many people. However, if rejuvenating an iconic American company isn’t a good reason to be admired and imitated, what is? How about Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford (formerly of Boeing). There’s talk of his retirement in the next few years, but what he has done with Ford is nothing short of miraculous. He may be every bit as hard to replace as Steve Jobs, but for a different reason. Sometimes it’s harder to fix something old than to invent something new.

I hope this brief post will make you think about who you think is part of the “new guard” of American wealth creators! Our future and that of our children (and grandchildren) depends on them every bit as much—or more—than the politicians in Washington, D.C.

President & CEO, The Enterprise Group