Internet's Unheralded Visionary: Leadership Matters

It's truly rare when there is a leader among us that dramatically changes our way of life by his or her singular vision. What makes these leaders so profound and worthy of our awe is their ability to truly envision a future the rest of us can't even imagine.

Many of these names are well known, like Thomas Edison with the motion picture, Edwin Armstrong and the FM radio, or Chester Carlson and the photocopier. However, many others stayed in the background although their contributions to our ways of life had tremendous and long-lasting effect.

One such leader, Theodore Constantine Papes Jr. , was the CEO of a start-up in 1984 that was a joint venture of IBM ( IBM), Sears ( SHLD) and originally CBS ( CBS). First known as Trintex, the company helmed by Papes would launch Prodigy in 1988 in a limited number of cities to be followed by a national rollout in 1990.

While many people think of Prodigy as the Internet service that was trounced by America Online, there may have been no Internet services period had it not been for the vision and commitment of Papes. As a result of his foresight, Prodigy would lay the groundwork for much of what we take for granted on the World Wide Web.

His success wasn't just about the technology. He was also insightful in his approach to the marketplace. Before launching Prodigy in earnest, Papes led focus groups of consumers and software developers, asking what a dial-up customer might want in an Internet service. Before Windows from Microsoft ( MSFT) had become adopted as the standard in personal computer operating systems, Prodigy offered a graphical user interface which put it far beyond the offerings of Compuserve, its closest competitor at the time.

Most importantly, Papes also realized that whatever consumers might want in software, they could never experience without a way to actually connect to the Internet. He convinced Hayes Microcomputer to produce a low-cost modem that would allow potential customers the opportunity to have easy and cheap access to the Internet. Through this move, he singlehandedly created exponential growth in the potential Internet customer base.

Papes was a risk-taker who pioneered Internet marketing and communication as well. Prodigy's bulletin board and email systems were the first of their kind and grew beyond any expectation. Papes also introduced online stock quotes through Dow Jones, online flower sales, flight reservations and grocery shopping. Many see the partnership with Kroger ( KR) as one of Papes' online failures. However, when you are a trailblazer, it is as important to mark the path not to take as it is to point the way down the right one.

In the New York Times in 1988, Papes told reporters that Prodigy would "provide marketing and advertising at the speed of light." At the time of his interview, he had less than 100 companies ready to sign up for his advertising service. Seen another way, he had these companies ready to sign up for a service that was untested and unproven. These were the first of the tens of thousands of companies today jockeying around the Internet for marketing and sales position.

Eventually, AOL ( AOL), with its Windows platform and extended features, would come in behind the pioneer to replace Prodigy as the Internet provider of choice. Prodigy was eventually sold in 1999 and went public, being purchased 100% by SBC Communications in 2001 and rolled into the SBC Yahoo! offerings.

If great leaders are defined by the power of their vision and their ability to influence others to buy into that vision, then the unheralded life of Papes should be remembered as that of a great leader. Since you are reading this article online and are probably seeing the stock symbols click by somewhere on your screen, you are being impacted by the technology that Papes brought into reach of the common consumer.

Papes died on Jan. 8, in his home in Mt. Kispo, N.Y.

Leadership Development Specialist, L. Todd Thomas ("Dr. Todd" Ph.D., M.S., M.A. is Founder of IMPACT Consulting and Development and a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Devos Graduate School of Management. He led Organizational Learning at Rockwell Avionics and was the executive responsible for Organizational and Executive Development at Daimler Financial Services for 10 years. Dr. Todd has coached and consulted with over 3,000 leaders from 40 different countries spanning four continents. He is a speaker, seminar leader and the author of "Leading in a Flat World: How Good Leaders Become Greatly Valued." Other titles include "Life Lessons for Leaders" and "Stop Wasting Your Time: Creating High-IMPACT Meetings" as well as the "Leadership Integrity Quotient(TM)" leadership assessment.

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