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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Jobs, Gates, and Occupy Wall Street

This article originally appeared in China.org.

“The greatest exercise for the human heart is to reach down and lift another up.” 

This single sentence lingered in my head long after I’d finished reading True North, a 2007 best-seller about “authentic leadership” and corporate social responsibilities.

During a lecture he gave at Cornell University on Thursday, Bill George, the chief author of the book, encouraged students to be a new generation of leaders who stay true to their hearts. George also repeated the mantra, “My generation messed up.” He ascribed the entire economic downturn and turmoil in recent years to a failure of leadership, especially from Wall Street. 

When asked about the Occupy Wall Street movement now spreading all over the United States, Bill George frowned and said, “They are holding up mirrors for us, and asking: ‘do you like what you see in it?’ I don’t like what I see. That’s myself…that I don’t like.” 

Ever since the first group of young people gathered near Wall Street in mid-September, the protest has been criticized for being fluid, fractured, lacking a clear goal, and aimed at the wrong target. Yet, after more than a month of demonstrations and protestors “occupying” more than 450 locations in the U.S., “leaders” in the country eventually realized that they have to face the truth: something is going wrong. 

It is easy to understand that from the Wall Street black-ties’ point of view, a bunch of youngsters dancing, painting, and playing musical instruments near the Financial District is pure fandangle. But now, with hundreds of thousands of people voicing the same concerns, the message is clear: economic and social inequality has increasingly become a problem. 

The income ratio in the U.S. was 14.5 to 1 in 2010, which almost doubled the ratio of 1968 (7.69 to 1). Today, the top 20% of Americans are earning roughly half of the nation’s income, whereas 15% of the population below the poverty line is only making 3.4%. While protestors’ claims that “1% of the people have 99% of the wealth” may not be accurate, the anger and depression among the “have-nots” are real. 

There is no widely agreed-upon definition of “corporate greed”, which the Wall Street demonstrators are protesting against. Analogously, “true north” can also vary from individual to individual. In the book, Bill George described “true north” as a person’s set of values and goals which cannot be sacrificed. However, each person’s values and goals can differ greatly. 

On October 5, 2011, the world became sentimental when people learned of Steve Jobs’ death. The business genius and role-model received universal acclaim, not only because Apple’s stock price had been rocketing, but also due to the fact that iPhones and iPads have transformed the lives of an entire generation. Together with Apple fans, business leaders, media and scholars began to compare Apple, Inc. and Microsoft, and cited Apple as the winner in this marathon of sustainable corporate development. 

It might be true judging from the companies’ share prices. However, we may want to pause before we draw the same conclusion from the viewpoint of leadership. Both Apple and Microsoft have built milestones during the past decades. On one hand, after Bill Gates’ retirement, Microsoft has been marching forward steadily, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has supported hundreds of development projects in over 100 countries. On the other hand, we only know that Steve Jobs never brought Apple’s charitable branch back after shutting it down during the company’s difficult years. 

Did Steve Jobs follow his internal compass? Sure. Bill George himself sees Steve as a giant. 

People may argue that it is unfair to judge Steve Jobs solely on publicly-made monetary donations. And please don’t get me wrong – I am not accusing the deceased. My point is, everyone’s “true north” is distinct, and society as a whole cannot rely solely on the philanthropy of these business leaders. 

Narrowing income disparities should be the government’s responsibility. After all, the rise of corporate stars such as Apple and Microsoft alone will not result in a stable and booming society. People aren’t protesting against Wall Street because they can’t afford to buy an iPhone or a PC. They are protesting because the door of opportunity has been slammed in their face. 

 He Shifei is a Chinese freelance journalist currently living in the U.S. Her research interests include government, politics and policy studies.