Ask anyone why they like Bruce Lee and the response will be something visceral like "he kicked ass." A more socially-conscious person might add that he was a hero to Asian Americans and African Americans who admired the way his characters fought against oppression armed only with his hands and feet.
These things are true, but my admiration for Lee stems from a reason sometimes overlooked by the general public: he was a dynamic entrepreneur who demonstrated considerable chops as a business leader.
Lee and I share a last name, but we’re not related. I have, however, probably spent a lot more time thinking about him than your average person. My book the Bruce Lee Code is due out from Career Press in early 2023, and I am the curator and editorial director of the exhibit We Are Bruce Lee, which opens April 24 at the Chinese Historical Society of America museum in San Francisco.
Perhaps you can blame it on my day job as a business reporter who has covered Silicon Valley for many years, but I think Bruce Lee doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves as an entrepreneur.
In fact, the person he reminds me of the most is Steve Jobs. Comparisons to Jobs sometimes turn out to be nothing but hype, but in this case, it really is warranted. Here are four reasons why Lee's career mirrored that of the famed co-founder and CEO of Apple.
Both Lee and Jobs were visionaries who deeply believed in purpose and mission. Jobs wanted to make the computer, a once expensive, cumbersome piece of engineering, a central technology to the lives of the mass public.
Lee was a man of two worlds. He was born in San Francisco but grew up in Hong Kong. Lee subsequently attended college in Seattle and worked in Oakland, Calif., and Los Angeles before returning to Hong Kong where he enjoyed a successful film career.
But even as a young man, Lee had a broader vision. He knew that he wanted to integrate East and West by teaching kung fu, a martial art that the Chinese jealously guarded for centuries, to the mass public, including white and Black Americans, men and women.
At just 21-years-old, Lee intuitively sensed how entrepreneurs and innovators historically played a crucial role in the U.S.’s deeply held narrative of American exceptionalism. And he understood the opportunities that could emerge from these beliefs.
"Fortune, in the sense of wealth, is the reward of the man who can think of something that hasn't been thought of before," Lee wrote to a friend in 1962. "In every industry, in every profession, ideas are what America is looking for. Ideas have made America what she is, a done good idea will make a man what he wants to be."
"I feel I have this great creative and spiritual force within me that is greater than faith, greater than ambition, greater than vision," he continued. "It is all these combined. My brain becomes magnetized with this dominating force which I hold in my hand."
Jobs and Lee both believed in the power of simplicity, that taking complex ideas and technology and making them useful and accessible to the public was an innovation itself.
Jobs didn't invent the smartphone. But he found a way to make a product that people actually wanted to buy.
"The problem (with smartphones) is that they are not so smart and they're not so easy to use," Jobs said in 2007. "Just for the basic stuff, people have a hard time figuring out how to use them. What we did is make a leapfrog product that is way smarter than the mobile device has ever been and supereasy to use."
Similar to Jobs’ thinking on smartphones, Lee believed that martial arts like kung fu, karate, and taekwondo had become unnecessarily showy and impractical in real life combat situations.
"There's too much horsing around with unrealistic stances and classic forms and rituals," he told Black Belt magazine in 1967, saying that "a guy could get clobbered," if he used those techniques in an actual fight.
So Lee created his own martial arts philosophy called Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist) that taught fighters to adapt to their opponent and situation rather than blindly follow the static rules of whatever martial art they studied.
Frequently, that would mean using multiple martial arts in the same fight. Decades later, that philosophy would form the spiritual foundation of mixed martial arts fighting, the style embraced by the multibillion dollar brand known as the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
"The sport of mixed martial arts was started by Bruce Lee," UFC president Dana White once said. "Bruce Lee’s movies, Bruce Lee’s philosophies, just Bruce Lee’s image alone is very powerful.”
Resilience and adaptation
Like many entrepreneurs, both Jobs and Lee suffered failures but ultimately recovered and prospered not just in spite of but because of their setbacks.
In 1985, Apple fired Jobs after he clashed with CEO John Sculley and the company’s board. It was a low point for Jobs, but he later founded Next, a computer startup that Apple ultimately purchased for $425 million and 1.5 million shares of Apple stock.
Sculley would later tell me that he believed Jobs' exile made him a better, less intractable leader when he returned to the company in 1997.
“The Steve Jobs that worked with me in 1985 never, ever would have created a product like iTunes and put it on Microsoft,” Sculley said. “When he came out with the iPod and iTunes, it was brilliant. It was exactly the right product. It reinvented the music industry, but he put it on Windows.”
Lee, meanwhile, held high hopes of becoming a movie and television star when Warner Bros. cast him in the role of Kato in the The Green Hornet television show in 1966.
It was a watershed moment for Asian Americans, who were typically relegated to stereotypical roles of weak, submissive characters. It allowed Lee to introduce kung fu to millions of Americans, who were electrified by his seemingly superhuman physical gifts.
But much to Lee's frustration, the producers gave him few, if any, lines because of his accented English. When the show was canceled after only one season, Lee struggled to find major roles in Hollywood. He was in the running for the lead in the Kung Fu television series but producers ultimately gave the role of a Chinese man to David Carradine, a white actor with no martial arts experience.
Rather than give up, Lee went to Hong Kong with the hope that his success in Asia would entice Hollywood to sign him to a major deal. He even formed a company called Concord Production so he could assume greater creative and financial control over his projects.
Lee's strategy paid off. After blockbuster hits like The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Way of the Dragon, Warner Bros. agreed to co-produce and distribute Enter the Dragon with Lee and Concord. The result was arguably the greatest martial arts movie of all time, a film that granted Lee his long desired status as a global superstar.
Both men knew the most valuable asset wasn't any one product or service but rather the power of their brands.
Apple made a number of top selling products like the Macbook, iPod, iPad, and iPhone. But it was Job's strategy of integrating those devices with services like iTunes and Apple TV in a connected ecosystem under the Apple brand that truly inspired loyalty and set Apple apart from the competition. For consumers, Apple became synonymous with cool, elegance, and usability.
Long before everyone became a personal brand, Lee knew that his most valuable brand was himself. People loved his movies because of his charisma and martial arts mastery, two things that are impossible to rip off.
So Lee made sure the public knew who was the star of the show. The "Dragon" in the titles Way of the Dragon and Enter of the Dragon doesn't refer to any plot point or character but rather to Lee himself, whose nickname was Little Dragon. It’s hard to think of any current movie star who has enough clout to name a movie after himself.
Lee died in 1973, but the brand he built continues to inspire successful products, whether comic books, video games, television and movies, or fashion, music, and sports. There would be no Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter video games without him. There would be no The Matrix, Kill Bill, or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer without him.
"Every ethnic group, every demographic loves Bruce Lee," said Lee Huang, a former top executive at Barnes & Noble. "You can't really say that about any other global icon. Bruce Lee is a universally beloved figure."
"So all of his innovations, from Jeet Kune Do and his movies to bringing martial arts to non-Chinese folks, creating the brand of strong Asian men, translated into amazing business."