What does a business genius look like?

August 17, 2012

Small business ideas are only part of the equation. Genius requires execution.

What is a genius? The 17th Century English poet John Dryden wrote: "Genius is above correctness." A genius possesses the ability to ignore conventional wisdom about what’s possible, to throw off the straitjacket of the status quo and to… dream. By realizing their dreams, geniuses succeed in redefining what’s possible. For example, the first manned flight took place on December 17, 1903. It lasted 12 seconds. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth. Within less than six decades, thanks to several geniuses from the Wright Brothers onwards, mankind had gone from never having flown, to being briefly aloft in a wood-and-canvas airplane to sending a man into space.

So what does a business genius look like? Well many say you need look no further than Steve Jobs. Walter Isaacson, Jobs’ biographer, wrote a fascinating piece in the NY Times on what made the Apple founder a “genius”.

“So was Mr. Jobs smart? Not conventionally. Instead, he was a genius. That may seem like a silly word game, but in fact his success dramatizes an interesting distinction between intelligence and genius. His imaginative leaps were instinctive, unexpected, and at times magical. They were sparked by intuition, not analytic rigor. Trained in Zen Buddhism, Mr. Jobs came to value experiential wisdom over empirical analysis. He didn’t study data or crunch numbers but like a pathfinder, he could sniff the winds and sense what lay ahead.”

What sets the genius apart from the mere dreamer? Something else Isaacson wrote in the Times piece really strikes a chord. “In the annals of ingenuity, new ideas are only part of the equation. Genius requires execution.” Jobs didn’t have the idea for the PC but he realized that, to take off, the PC needed to be much more user friendly than his rival’s early efforts were: intimidating boxy affairs on whose green screens flickered incomprehensible commands. The Macintosh, in contrast, was small, cute and friendly. The same went for Apple’s forays into music players, phones and tablet computers; it wasn’t the first into these markets, but Apple’s first offering seemed to be the best one out, exemplifying the unity of perfect form and easy function. So a genius isn’t necessarily the smartest person in the room, but the one with the imagination and perseverance to translate a smart idea into the best product. It’s someone who trusts their own judgment when everyone around them is calling them a fool. A successful entrepreneur doesn’t have to be the one with a million-dollar small business idea, but is the one who turns the idea into a million dollars. You need to believe in yourself even when the so-called experts tell you you’re doomed to fail. You need the ability to think “What if?” and have the smarts to know how to achieve your dream. A good entrepreneur, like a genius, is a dreamer with a hard head for getting things done.