Silicon Valley’s ‘Great Leader’ Myth Persists


The technology industry loves its creator or “great leader” myths, all of which follow roughly the same template: Young engineer or developer has a great idea, nurtures said idea into an enormous company (often in the face of significant adversity), and changes the world in the process.

It’s a compelling myth, but one that shouldn’t go unchallenged. That’s the core thesis of a new piece in the MIT Technology Review, which suggests that titanic figures such as Elon Musk and Steve Jobs have more in common with marketers than engineers or inventors: “Do we really think that if Jobs and Musk had never come along, there would have been no smartphone revolution, no surge of interest in electric vehicles?”

As a handful of biographies (most notably by Walter Isaacson, Brent Schlender, and Rick Tetzeli) have noted over the past few years, Steve Jobs had the ability to synthesize multiple technologies into a product that elicited an emotional reaction from its intended audience. He didn’t invent those technologies, but he had enough foresight to see how they might work in synthesis. During his lifetime, he enraged developers and designers who felt they didn’t get enough attention for what they’d done.

In a similar fashion, Musk (and other founders) have relied on teams of brilliant engineers to get things done, fueled by ample funding from venture capitalists and government agencies; those talented tech pros often find their contributions overshadowed by their charismatic boss. “Hero myths like the ones surrounding Musk and Jobs are damaging in other ways, too,” the Technology Review added. “If tech leaders are seen primarily as singular, lone achievers, it is easier for them to extract disproportionate wealth.”

In the end, even the most charismatic founder needs to rely on an excellent team in order to get anything done. The creator myth is a good one, but like all myths, it’s not reality.