The Genius Founder

November 25, 2019Computing in Context


Microsoft: Bill Gates. Amazon: Jeff Bezos. Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg. Google: Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Tesla: Elon Musk. Twitter: Jack Dorsey. Snap: Evan Spiegel. Uber Travis Kalanick. And of course, Apple: Steve Jobs.

Silicon Valley and the tech industry writ large is filled with stories of famous founders, single individuals (mostly white men) whose lives are publicly intertwined with the companies that they founded or co-founded. We know that one person never does anything on their own, but we also know that the actions of one person can have a significant impact on a scene, group, city, nation.

What does it mean that so many of these companies are strongly identified with individual leaders? More specifically, what purpose does it serve these individuals, their companies, and the users of the platforms and products that they have created?

Your readings begin with The Great Man Theory, which is composed of a straightforward idea: history is explained by the impact of unique and influential leaders, who are born possessing certain traits of leadership and who arise when our need for them is great. Consider if this idea continues to operate today.


When the (white male) leaders of top tech companies are culturally read through the lens of Thomas Carlyle's Great Man Theory, several consequences emerge:

It allows for a persona to be attributed to a company and its products/services - perhaps to an exploitative end.

The legacy Steve Jobs left on apple is a prime example of this. Steve Job's visible cool, mysterious personality became embedded into both public perception of Apple's company culture and its products. By associating Apple Inc. with the cool personality of its founder, the strong, pervasive imagery of a cool tech culture (as opposed to "boring" tech culture of Linux and Microsoft) allows for the erasure of actual conditions of what it's like to work in technology: "When it came to business, Mr Jobs was anything but a revolutionary... It seems like a cool, liberal, creative commpanny, but the reality is it's a very locked-down place. It's not a happy place to work" (Dailey).

On the consumer-facing side, the alignment of Apple's products with the creative persona of its CEO perhaps exploits consumers optimism through an attraction of creative ideals: "Everyone who buys a Mac says, 'I'm going to write my novel, I'm going to edit my movie, I'm going to cut that single'," says Mr Kahney. "It speaks to that creative streak. In reality all they do is sit around and watch Netflix on it.” (Dailey).

It allows for the historical erasure of contributions that don't fit into the Great Man Theory.

Carlisle's Great Man Theory suggests that history can be explained by the exceptional leadership of select great "men". Viewing history (and tech culture) through only this lens is myopic, as it erases the contributions of collective and non-male efforts.m In Mary Parker Follet's "Integrative Process", a leadership process that encourages a collective, community-centered "power-with" attitude rather than an individualist, hierarchical "power-over" one, and in Ella Baker's experiences orchestrating impactful, civil rights efforts through uplifting other members in the community, we are shown that an individualist, Great Man theory is not the only way things are challenged. However, we are made to think that it is.

In the tech world, focusing on the achievements of single individual leader often makes invisible the collective labor of everyone else in the tech echo system. While the leader may show up to make high profile speeches, who are the engineers, designers, managers responsible for keeping things moving? Who are the people, perhaps on the other side of the world, who are responsible for mass production and e-waste of consumer products?

We might see a focus on the leader working against the leader themselves in some cases. When a company fails or gets caught in the middle of a scandal, the CEO is the one to be scrutinized and blamed.

There is also the clear emphasis of the "Great Man" being necessarily a "Man". While many texts in the 1800's assume "man" to mean "human person", the cultural association of impactful leaders and men is clear through today. Ella Baker's struggles in finding her work as a woman acknowledged within civil rights efforts (in opposition to MLK Jr., who is seen to align with a "divine right of kings" leadership that asserted visibility through speeches and dramatic demmonstrations ) speaks to this. "She was never made official because she was neither a mininstor nor a man."

It reinforces what is valued in a leader, and what kinds of traits make you deserve control.

Carlisle's point on Great Men as ultimately associated with "Order" was interesting to me:

“May we not say, moreover, while so maby of our late Heroes have worked rather as revolutionary men, that nevertheless every Great Man, every genuine man, is by the nature of him a son of Order, not of Disorder?"

For my thesis, I have been reading a paper on how gendered dualism emerge in engineering cultures. The paper (by Wendy Faulkner) suggests that engineering involves struggling to achieve control (Order) over things that are unpredictable (Disorder), and the value system of Ordered vs. Disordered is a basis for which other dualisms emerge, like "Mind vs. Body" or "Abstract vs. Concrete" or "Theoretical vs. Experimental".

I think Great Man Theory contributes to this value system, and in the context of computing culture it further privileges what kinds of personality traits are implicitly valued. It is interesting to contrast Great Man Theory's archetypes (divinity, prophet, poet, priest, man of letters, and king) with Baker's concept of leadership (facilitators, coordinators, teacher/educator).

It contributes to a (complicated) impression of meritocracy?

My point on this is not super well formed, but I notice that people often reference these Geniuses as inspiration to elevate them in their own lives. An example of this might be kids wanting to "be the next Mark Zuckerberg" or adults who have never gotten a technical education but wish to self-study and get a career in software engineering (a recurring archetype we notice in ed-tech). I think that these leaders offer inspiration because they sometimes come from middle class backgrounds and appear to build entire empires from very little, and that gives other people hope that they too can do similar things.

This mindset seems to be aligned with a belief that the tech world is a meritocracy: if your chops are good enough then you can also share a slice of that success. This is kind of antithetical to Great Man Theory in actuality, which describes the leader as being born as an exceptional leader. There is some tension between Genius Founders as being elite and god-like and Geninus Founders as being just-like-you, clad in t-shirt and jeans, that I think is able to keep them in power while letting them seem down-to-earth and relatable. (I'm thinking of Mark Zuckerberg's public image, pre-alien memes and Cambridge Analytica).

My Questions

  1. To what extent is it true that genius founders can be a source of inspiration and success for other people?

  2. Does Great Man Theory get less problematic if the people we view through that lens are more diverse? If we have more "Great Women" in tech?

  3. How does the idea of genius founder, as something to draw inspiration from, interact with the idea of genius founder, as having been born a unique leader?


Dailey, Kate. “The cult of Steve Jobs”. BBC News Magazine. 7 October, 201

Whipps, Judy. “A Pragmatist Reading of Mary Parker Follett’s Integrative Process”. Transactions of the Charles S. Pierce Society, Vol 50, No 3. Summer 2014

Anarkismo’s Organizing Lessons from Civil Rights Leader Ella Baker, March 2008 1