The puppeteer and the CEO

When Jim Henson died in 1990, I wore a black armband and brought my stuffed Kermit the Frog to school the next morning. Henson, by way of the Muppets, had been a central ingredient in my (and probably most American children’s) media diet since I was two, watching Sesame Street and marveling at the real-life presence of imaginary birds and mammoths on a street very like the street I lived on. Later on, I grew into the Muppet Show, where some of the same characters took on a more iconoclastic bent, and poked holes in the facade of celebrity. Jim Henson was an amazing creator and leader, with incredibly high standards, and when Apple started their Think Different ad campaign, the one I thought fit best was Henson’s image, with Kermit on his shoulder.

Among the strangers whose deaths have most affected me, Steve Jobs is the only other public figure to have resonated like Jim Henson. This is odd, because they had two very distinct paths, and while my arts-educated, socially-conscious, liberal brain can very much get around puppetry and children’s education, the idea that we might be so affected by the death of a corporate CEO—whom I did not even know personally—makes me wonder what else Steve Jobs really was, because he was clearly very much more to us than that.

In talking about Jobs last night, I referred to him as an “orator”, which puts him in unusual company. He was not eloquent in the fashion of a political figure, but he was in many ways more persuasive than most any other public figure. Because of his choice of careers, we call that “sales” (a point that Walt Mossberg pointed out very clearly in his wonderful obituary today). I’m not sure we would speak comfortably about Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama as having a “reality distortion field”, but it’s clear that both actually do, or did. Steve Jobs filled classrooms with Apple II computers, which changed the course of technology in education, and he then helped transform publishing with the Macintosh—in both cases, by being convincing about great technology.

But it’s hard to imagine that Jobs could be convincing about things that he didn’t deeply believe in. There are certainly examples of that in his presentations, but they’re obvious and stretched. For the most part, though, the products he sold were products whose creation he directed, with a level of micro-management that would make most management consultants weep. At his core, Steve Jobs was a creator, and this is one of the reasons we love him so much, and why I think I’m as moved by his death as I was by Jim Henson’s. Like Henson, he led an incredibly talented team of inventors and craftspeople, holding himself to standards at or above the nearly-unreachable standards to which he held his team. To have Jobs as a role model is, at its essence, to take on the challenge of continually trying the impossible.

Steve Jobs was a father, husband, hobbyist-turned-mogul, perfectionist, thoughtful designer, exacting leader, and iconoclast-turned-icon. It is crystal-clear to me why he means to me today what Jim Henson did when I was a teenager. Corny as it sounds, he was the president and spiritual leader of the industry I work in, and for people who build anything, his loss is a major turning point. We are charged to carry on the principles he left behind, and for me to say that about Steve Jobs, the CEO, in the same way I thought it about Jim Henson, the puppeteer, says a lot about those principles.

tangentialism is David Yee!