Sorkin’s hesitation to write the column—he says “none of this is meant to judge Mr. Jobs” and “I had reservations about raising the issue given his ill health”—demonstrates how tricky the answer to this question really is. For one, no one knows for sure how much of his money Jobs has given away. Even if Jobs shows apparent lack of public giving (“long whispered about, but rarely said aloud,” Sorkin notes), it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the man so good at keeping Apple’s products secret could very well be a master of making donations anonymously. For instance, Jobs is the rumored benefactor behind a $150 million donation to a cancer center at the University of California at San Francisco.
And yet, the “good” most people know Jobs to have done in the world is creating brilliantly designed products, industry-changing software, and must-have gadgets that have transformed the way we live. He has been at the helm of a wildly successful company that has made millionaires out of many—creating a vast amount of wealth that can be used to give back in charitable ways. And his company is known for working with educational institutions and offering discounts to schools for their products.
But is that enough? Some would say—and have said, quite famously—that it isn’t. From the financier Winthrop Williams Aldrich (“the price of power is responsibility for the public good”) to the industrialist Andrew Carnegie (“surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community”), there is a long history of the wealthy and powerful sounding off about the responsibility both confer.
Bill Gates, Jobs’ long-standing rival, also used now well-known words (“with great wealth comes great responsibility”) when he stepped down from being chairman of Microsoft to work full time on his foundation. Long publicly criticized for harboring his wealth, Gates has gone on to become one of the world’s great philanthropists, even inspiring Warren Buffett to do the same earlier than expected. Buffett himself was criticized for not giving his money away before the end of his life—his original plan—so much so that when he shared his news with the world, it led some to wonder if he was ill.
But perhaps the most applicable quote on the topic comes from Albert Schweitzer, the noted physician and philosopher. “Reverence for life,” he once said, “refuses to let the businessman imagine that he fulfills all legitimate demands in the course of his business activities. Reverence for life demands for all that they should sacrifice a portion of their own lives for others.”
Jobs may very well be as brilliant at making anonymous donations as he is keeping Apple’s next products under wraps. He may very well make a substantial public contribution someday in the future or upon his death. And there is no question that his reputation as an innovator and pioneer will remain intact if he does not sign the Giving Pledge, or set up photo opps with poor children in Africa, or have his name splashed across the front of a new campus computing center.
The question, in the end, is not whether a lack of public giving will diminish Jobs’ leadership legacy. The question is how much greater it could be.
More from On Leadership:
Jena McGregor: Steve Jobs: A pioneer in a risk-averse world
Paul O’Neill: Only the president can restart America’s engine
Michael Useem: Revising investor capitalism’s mantra
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