“The man is a national treasure. I don’t understand why people like that can’t be held up as models: This is the most incredible thing to be — not an astronaut, not a football player — but this.” – Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs is widely regarded as one of the most innovative minds of his era. His leadership at Apple changed the way we listen to music, the way we work, and the way we communicate. His career is a testament to visionary, innovative leadership, and what can be accomplished through it. By his own admission, Jobs was inspired by another, less often remembered, visionary leader. Before Jobs, Ewin Land, the founder and CEO of Polaroid for nearly four decades, was the visionary, innovative leader of his generation.
Land and Jobs share uncanny biographical similarities. Both were college dropouts, Jobs dropped out of Reed College after six months in 1972, Land dropped out of Harvard College in 1928 after only finishing his freshman year, with neither man ever finishing their degree. Both valued a balance between form and functionality that was not always shared by their contemporaries. It was not enough for Polaroid’s products to function better than their competitors, they much be more beautiful as well. Both turned product introductions into fully produced shows, inviting musicians, journalist, and spectators. Both men, generations apart, shared a famous distaste for market research, believing that consumers did not know what they wanted until they saw it. Both depending on their instincts to guide their companies, and had a vision for where they believed the marketplace should go.
Under Land’s leadership Polaroid became known as an “invention factory.” The company produced the first instant color film in 1963, the first fully-automatic folding camera in 1972, and the beautifully crafted OneStep Land camera in 1977
that quickly became the country’s best selling camera. In 1972, before the launch of the SX-70 Land Camera, Life Magazine featured Edwin Land on its cover with the inscription “A Genius and His Magic Camera.”
The title was fitting. Life’s cover came following an unprecedented wave of genius. Land had amassed 535 patents, second only to Thomas Edison. The sheet polarizers that he had developed and patented decades before he had made a camera, which gave the company its name, became a required application for everything from sunglasses, to jukeboxes, to LCD screens, and countless scientific devices. During the Second World War, Land developed goggles for American soldiers, and a device known as the Vectograph, which helped identify enemies in camouflaged positions through aerial photography. After the war he advised President Eisenhower on aerial espionage, and helped design the U-2 spy plane.
Polaroid was a champion of the arts and important social causes. In the early years of the company, when most corporate women did not advance beyond their roles as secretaries he hired women to do research and trained them in the hard sciences. Inspired by Martin Luther King, Land placed Polaroid at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. In the arts, he opened Polaroid’s doors to America’s greatest visual artist, including Ansel Adams, Robert Frank, and Andy Warhol, and provided them with space to create. His vision benefited almost every aspect of American life, and his leadership created ripples on Main Street and Wall Street, just like his products. By 1976, the Cambridge, Massachusetts based company had reached an unprecedented evaluation of $1 billion.
Leaders like Edwin Land remind us of the value that innovation supplies all of us. There are innumerable stories just like this one throughout the history of our Commonwealth. If you are a Massachusetts High School student stories like this can win you up $5,000 for yourself and $1,000 for your school! It might just provide the flash for the next visionary leader to change our world.
Go to http://acommonsense.org/contest/ to find out more and be sure to submit before March 7th!