It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy. —Steve Jobs
This quotation is iconic, representing Steve Jobs and Apple: vigorous, irrepressible, courageous, brash.
It distills the essence of the choice between being an incumbent (most people, most of the time), an insurgent or a revolutionary.
It points to a law of life, with implications far beyond the relatively low stakes, shared metrics and confined boundaries of business.
A Sinister Challenge
Benito Mussolini, reflecting on a meeting with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Halifax in January 1939, said, “These men are not made of the same stuff as the Francis Drakes and the other magnificent adventurers who created their empire. These, after all, are the tired sons of a long line of rich men and they will lose their empire.”
Several months earlier, Chamberlain, seeking above all to avoid a general European war, had asked il Duce to intercede, helping arrange a meeting in Munich with German Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Mussolini observed presciently: “As soon as Hitler sees that old man, he will know that he has won the battle. Chamberlain is not aware that to present himself to Hitler in the uniform of a bourgeois pacifist and British parliamentarian is the equivalent of giving a wild beast a taste of blood.”
Regrettably, tragically, Mussolini was proven right. Hitler presented himself as a conventional insurgent when it advanced his evil, revolutionary goals. Chamberlain and his associates were the ultimate incumbents. They took their position in the world as a given. They presumed they could somehow stay in place, eluding the one constant of history: change. Their collective imagination could not comprehend the Nazis’ determination to overturn that world, their willingness to unleash the horror that had run riot in the First World War. Chamberlain’s willful, entitled incumbency was jarringly self-serving, inevitably self-destructive.
The Choice: Incumbent or Insurgent or Revolutionary…
Steve Jobs and Apple moved from insurgency to full-fledged revolution in the world of business. Like pirates, they ignored conventions, trampled customs and niceties and “rules.” They would overturn entire industries (from music to textbooks) and change—for the better—how millions of people live.
Incumbents are the beneficiaries of yesterday’s insurgents and revolutionaries. This can be true of nations or companies or individuals.
One might be an incumbent at one time, an insurgent in another, a revolutionary in another. One might exhibit one or more of these mindsets simultaneously, in various contexts.
One must also evaluate the mindsets of others. Such judgments may be accurate—or, particularly in the case of incumbents, they may be self-serving projections. All the while, others are drawing conclusions about you.
What About You?
Are you an incumbent or insurgent or revolutionary?
Has your role changed over time? What do you envision in the future?
Which categories do your colleagues and competitors fit into?
How do you guard against sliding into incumbency, allowing past and present successes to occasion an element of entitlement?
Who are you serving?
Incumbent or Insurgent or Revolutionary?