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Two leaders lost, big lessons gained

Posted: October 14, 2011 4:51 p.m.
Updated: October 17, 2011 5:00 a.m.

What makes a great leader? While President Barack Obama and his Republican challengers grapple mightily with that question, the deaths of Steve Jobs and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, two leaders who shunned political office, tell us the answer.

“Think Different” was the 1997 ad slogan at Apple, co-founded by CEO Jobs, who died Oct. 5 at age 56 after a long bout with cancer. The seemingly ungrammatical slogan appeared to be a play on the memorable “Think” motto coined by Thomas J. Watson at competitor IBM. It also hints at the risk-taking that makes a leader: Don’t just think differently, but think about something that’s “different.”

Jobs didn’t invent the Internet Age, but he opened up new vistas of user-friendliness. He brought his company back from the brink twice by defying conventional wisdom, putting his customers first and, in his own special way, inspiring his employees and coworkers.

He realized, as smart innovators do, that he was not in the computer business but in the business of helping to make people’s lives easier, more productive and more fun.

I know. I used to be in a mixed marriage. As the Apple commercial might put it, my wife was “Apple” and I was “PC.” But I bought an iPod and I was hooked. Soon I moved on to the stronger stuff -- the iPad, the iPhone, the MacBook Air. Apple stuff costs more than PC and Android stuff, but in the company’s Jobs years, he made “different” seem worth it.

“Think Different” could just as easily have been the motto of Rev. Shuttlesworth, who also died of cancer the same day as Jobs but in a Birmingham hospital at age 89.

He was the key architect of the mass marches in 1963 Birmingham and the iconic televised showdown between demonstrators and that city’s fire hoses and police dogs.

Less visible were the big risks Rev. Shuttlesworth and his family took, boldly defying threats of violence that martyred dozens of others who dared to think of a different world from the customs and traditions that comprised America’s age-old version of apartheid.

On the day they died, the worlds of Jobs and Shuttlesworth came together in many unusual ways.

Most visibly, there were the growing Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, a variation on the Birmingham model aimed at protesting bankers and corporate policies that have left wages stagnant and millions unemployed.

Yet, amid the anti-corporate rhetoric at the Twitter accounts @OccupyWallStreet and @OPWallStreet, the Christian Science Monitor found messages of sorrow over the loss of a corporate mogul many protesters actually liked, even though he belonged to the upper-income “1 percent” they were protesting:

“RIP to a creative genius who helped make ALL these movements possible,” commented a Twitter user called @alphaleah.

With that, I was reminded of Mitt Romney’s controversial off-the-cuff remark to a heckler in Iowa: “Corporations are people, too, my friend.”

I was also reminded of the old saying, “Everyone hates Congress but loves their own congressman.” It’s easy to hate a faceless corporation or a faceless Congress -- or faceless “media” -- but easy to love individuals with whom you identify and trust.

It is also easy to appreciate real courage like that which Rev. Shuttlesworth showed in 1961, for example, when he took Freedom Riders into his home after it had been bombed twice -- one time hurling him out of his bed on Christmas Day. He took his survival as a sign that he had more work to do and he did it. As the movement’s preachers used to say, the Lord was not finished with him yet.

The same could be said for Jobs, who explained in his June 2005 commencement address at Stanford how he was dealing with his life-threatening cancer: Live every day like your last, because one day it will be.

“I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

In the end, he changed us, too. He showed us the value of thinking “different.”

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