Monday, June 19, 2006

Stepping Aside

Last week the main news topic seemed to be Bill Gates and his decision to leave the reigns of the company he founded, Microsoft. Naturally with his wealth it is easy to retire and concentrate in philanthropy. Health and education for the world’s poor is obviously close to his heart, and being the richest man alive, he has the means to make a difference in this area. Also, he wants to be remembered as a great humanitarian, not just as someone who started a software company at the right time and place. But there is a much bigger issue behind wanting to step aside: the well-being and future of the very enterprise Mr. Gates had been a father to. After all, times have changed a lot from when IBM refused to see the potential in personal computers, and instead of creating an operating system for the then primitive PCs, gave the task to the little startup company of Mr. Gates and Mr. Allen, resulting in MS-DOS. Microsoft has had great success since, mainly with operating systems from Windows 3.1 on (the first versions were rather awful) and their Office software, a standard today with any company and institution. But times are changing and with broadband access to the internet everything in computing is very different from just a couple years ago. Microsoft needs people with fresh ideas and insight; otherwise the company could turn into a dinosaur and become extinct. It has already made a number of mistakes and wrong predictions in the past. Perhaps Mr. Gates realizes that he no longer can be the visionary his child needs and wants to give others the challenge. I salute his wisdom of stepping aside now, instead of growing old together with the corporation.

In Chicago, another famous figure is leaving his post. Daniel Barenboim just conducted his last concerts as the music director of the Chicago Symphony. Fifteen years at the helm of an orchestra is a long time, twice the norm for someone in that position in this country. The beginning of his tenure with the orchestra was somewhat rocky, but with time the musicians and Mr. Barenboim learned to see eye to eye and understand each other well. His decision to leave certainly was not caused by the orchestra’s players’ unhappiness with him; he just felt that his time was up. A first rate pianist even today, he has garnered respect from everyone as an artist. And instead of fraternizing with the Jewish community in order to raise funds, he chose to alienate many of them with his openly pro-Palestinian opinions and actions. This is not to say that Mr. Barenboim wasn’t proud of his heritage: he just couldn’t quietly witness the apartheid politics of Israel and spoke up time after time. It takes a person of courage to say and do what he firmly believes in, unpopular as it may be. With more people like him in leadership roles, both civil and political, we might see peace in the Middle East one day.

In the review of Mr. Barenboim’s farewell concerts in today’s New York Times, it is pointed out how many in the orchestra were initially unhappy with the conductor’s tendency of doing things differently from one performance to another. Of course this is a sign of inspiration and spontaneity on the podium, but requires much more attention from the musicians. In time the players adapted to this and the former ‘fault’ became a ‘virtue’. It will be interesting to see what artistic direction Chicago will take in the future. There is no doubt that Mr. Barenboim will be even more visible as an artist, now that he no longer has to handle all the baggage that came with his former job. Freedom is priceless, and a true artist needs that.