Where have all the great tech leaders gone?

It used to be that those who ran tech companies enjoyed devoted admiration. Things have changed.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

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We all want someone to look up to.

That's why we watch superhero movies and vote for politicians far more pure than we'll ever be.

Can we, though, look up to tech leaders these days?

Once, I was supposed to revere their swashbuckling bravado as, armed with digital machetes, they slashed the brush of old-style living with barely a bead of sweat on their brows.

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Potentates all over the world wanted to be photographed with them. One or two surely appreciated the power these (mostly) boys began to wield.

Of course I wanted to be like them, too. With, perhaps, a touch more personality attached.

These days, I'm not sure whom to worship anymore.

Just one look at Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg makes me (almost) feel sorry for him, as he squirms in the dirty puddles of his rapacious tendencies and his murky philosophies.

What about Jack Dorsey, the permanently debonair CEO of Twitter? Sadly, he's presiding over a muck-filled cesspool, one that he seems reluctant to sluice because, I fear, his company might make less money.

Investor and general large-brain Peter Thiel once wrote an interesting book, in which he cleverly shamed several shibboleths, painted a beautiful, even more individualistic future and explained how to be more like Peter Thiel.

Now, I don't know what to think about him, other than that his panic room in New Zealand gives me pause for thought.


How about Google CEO Sundar Pichai? Now that idealistic Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have shuffled off to create new flying machines and other means of escape from the world, Pichai seems like a decent man with a very hard job.

Unfortunately, his company's slightly putrid underbelly is slowly being revealed for all to see. A $5 billion fine for anti-competitive behavior was coupled in just one week with the revelation that, for 8 years, Google made sure its Duck.com URL went to Google Search, just to spite rival DuckDuckGo.

If not Evil Central, this is certainly somewhere south of Troubling.

There's Jeff Bezos, I suppose, but he doesn't seem all that interested in forwarding society. Unless you count buying everything via Amazon as social progress.

He rarely offers strategic thoughts about the future of the world and humans' role in it. Instead, he seems to prefer gobbling up markets and occasionally sending up rockets. Which is nice enough, but not exactly a superheroic mélange.

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Elon Musk was the Great Hope for quite a while.

He had the sexy, disheveled look and the scattered, brilliant imagination of Tony Stark. He made alluring cars that allegedly didn't lure the Earth to its death. They even drove themselves.

He tossed in copious wit and wisdom. He bothered to consider the effects of Artificial Intelligence on humans before humans themselves become artificially intelligent.

But now he comes over all Jack Sparrow after several nights on the seas too many. Asinine tweets and hurt diva turns have sent him spinning into image limbo, a place stars fear even more than ridicule.


Who's left?

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella seems like a pleasant man, with his apparent devotion to cricket and not being Bill Gates.

He's not, though, a moving speaker or someone with seemingly a grander vision than dragging Microsoft's employees and customers away from the Windows before they get hit by something.

There was, of course, Theranos CEO Elizabaeth Holmes.

A female Steve Jobs was the dream of Hero Marketing Inc.

Sadly, as with too many tech companies -- and tech leaders -- the promises were rather greater than the actuality. And the actuality became disturbing.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff is, well, tall enough to be a hero.

He likes to act in an elevated manner -- and I'm not specifically referring to the tumescent member that is his new tower lording it over San Francisco.

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Though his heart may be relatively genuine, I struggle with his slightly pretentious Hawaiian mumbo-jumbo, just as some of his own employees struggle with the company's relationship with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

It's hard to make human hearts skip when you're peddling, um, "out-of-the box CRM."

Does that really leave us with just Tim Cook?

Apple's CEO has the advantage of selling likable -- occasionally lovable -- products. Moreover, he does reflect a certain sincerity when he speaks on topics such as privacy and equality. It's easy to believe he still has something of a soul.

He also exudes a slight reluctance to be a hero. You might think this is what heroes should do -- be a little aw, shucks about the whole hero thing.

But it's not as if his Apple has somehow escaped being sullied.

There was a little tax situation over in Ireland, a little employment problem in China and a lot of intimation that the company deliberately creates products that need a lot of accessories priced at J. Crew levels, rather than H&M.

I still wonder, too, what Cook's ultimate vision might be. Other than ensuring that Apple gets bigger, that is.


So I, like the great and plaintive Bonnie Tyler, continue to hold out for a tech hero.

Perhaps I'm asking for too much from a corporate leader atop a corporate ladder.

I want someone who fully understands just how much tech has captured lives and messed them up in the process and truly wants to do something about it.

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I want someone who can stand up to twisted governments and help them see a kindly light, rather than bathe in the pleasures of destructive darkness. (Although Cook has tried in this area, at least with some governments.)

Most of all, I'd like to see someone with sufficient vision to create products that might help get us out of this mess.

The streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds, as La Tyler would say.

Is that you, oh startup founder, currently desperate to make a killing?

Or could it be that the notion of tech leaders as great heroes was merely another great invention of tech leaders?

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