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Malcolm Gladwell started his best-selling authorial career with a deep dive into who decides what's cool. So when this cool cat speaks up about business leaders the world will remember in 50 years, he's probably done his homework.
"People will remember him as the man who ... you know, there's a reasonable shot, because of his money, we will cure malaria," he said at a recent speaking engagement. So Gates, the man, will live on, but: "No one will even remember what Microsoft is."
That's an overstatement for dramatic effect, of course. You do know a thing or two about Standard Oil and its founder, John D Rockefeller, even a century after the company's demise, right?
That verdict has nothing to do with the businesses the two men started. By any measure, the Apple we see today is worthy of inclusion in any MBA curriculum for the next couple of centuries. It's an unparalleled rise from the edge of the grave to record-breaking riches, and a master class in marketing strategy. For this, Jobs will be remembered in business circles.
But the rest of the world should build statues to honor Gates instead. Gladwell argues that the charitable work he's pumping his Microsoft billions into is making the world better in a real and measurable way.
Though Gladwell didn't mention him, I'm sure that Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B ) guru Warren Buffett will outlive his company in public memory for much the same reasons. In fact, his charitable efforts are joined at the hip with Bill Gates'. He famously gave $31 billion to the Bill and Melinda Gates charitable trust in 2006, has proposed higher taxes on the ultra-rich, and aims to shuffle most of his Berkshire billions into the Gates foundations when he's gone. Oh, and the Rockefeller Foundation made significant contributions to fields like medicine, arts, and international relations. The early oil riches are still making a difference.
Should we hold billionaire business leaders to a higher standard of sharing than the rest of us? Gladwell would argue that these billions and trillions of hard-won dollars would be better spent on global improvements and on fundamental research than passed on as inheritance to a select handful of very rich families. Call it liberal idealism or blue-eyed naivete if you want, but I would agree. Would you rather be remembered just for being successful and fabulously wealthy, like Steve Jobs, or also for putting an incredible pile of gold to work in the real world, like Gates and Buffett? Discuss in the comments section below.
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