Wizards and warlords in the world of technology

This is the winner of the 2021 contest FT schools/World Today contest asking “What makes a good leader?” It was written by Thomas Cowan of Tiffin School, Kingston upon Thames in the UK

German sociologist Max Weber has proposed that the great rulers of the past can be divided into two groups: “magicians” and “warlords”. They established themselves by different methods. The magicians claimed they were enlightened and used their individual charisma to create a community of devotees. Warlords were more direct, using aggression and military skill to overcome their competitors, especially where there was no pre-existing authority.

These archetypes are not limited to history. Of course, religious leaders are magicians. They are individuals who, through the power of their words and the beliefs they represent, earn the devotion of billions of people. But in the Western world, religion is in decline. People, especially young people, depend less and less on organized faith for their morality and worldview. Instead, they turn to inspiring leaders in a range of industries, and those idols are the new magicians.

Steve Jobs is a prime example of a magician. He was neither an engineer nor a programmer; at Apple, it was Steve Wozniak. But the reason Wozniak was never just “the other Steve” was that Apple, the company, was itself more important than its products, and Steve Jobs was Apple. He became world famous due to his thrilling rhetoric and compelling presentation.

In the memorial on Apple’s website, people around the world describe the man as a visionary, genius, and hero. They tell how Jobs changed their lives and lament the loss of an “irreplaceable” leader. Within Apple, however, some saw him as a bully. Jobs never refuted this, stating that his job was “not to be easy on people”. Bully or not, his demand for ingenuity was the key factor in Apple’s groundbreaking innovation; something that seems to have diminished after Jobs passed away.

Conversely, Mark Zuckerberg could be characterized as a warlord. The Facebook CEO’s rise to international influence began with his coding abilities, and his company has since maintained its early dominance in the booming social media market with strategic purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp.

Zuckerberg’s appearance in the Senate to defend content moderation on his platform shows how he’s led Facebook to a place where he’s given it unprecedented influence over public opinion and politics. Morale or not, Zuckerberg’s rise has been meteoric.

Jobs and Zuckerberg are undeniably “good” leaders, their extremely valuable businesses each rooted in popular culture. But on the battlefield of iconic figureheads, Jobs wins. While Zuckerberg is undeniably smart, he lacks a certain degree of charisma and personality. His public perception is neutral at best.

Jobs was and remains an inspiration to many; each of its product launches felt like a glimpse of its crystal ball. Jobs will live because he had the most valuable leadership ability of all: the ability to inspire. The Warchief doesn’t need charisma; the magician takes care of it. In the wake of Covid-19 and the resulting economic turmoil, we could see people turning to magicians more than ever.

This article has been edited to reflect that Facebook bought WhatsApp, not Snapchat.

Brian L. Hartfield