In 1836, Charles Darwin visited Australia for the first time. Nearly 180 years after his first journey Down Under, the boldness of ambition and fearlessness of leadership shown by the adventurers of that age remain inspiring.

Having survived the return journey, in 1859 he published the iconic work On the Origin of Species, in which he laid out the term ‘natural selection’. A few years later, Herbert Spencer coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, drawing parallels between his own economic theories and Darwin’s theories of evolution. As Spencer put it: “This survival of the fittest, which I have here sought to express in mechanical terms, is that which Mr Darwin has called ‘natural selection’, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

How fascinating would Darwin and Spencer find the corporate world today? With accelerating technological evolution, the ecosystem in which companies live is changing more rapidly than ever before, providing fertile ground for experiment and observation. Ideas can bloom into hundred-billion-dollar businesses in a handful of years. Others at the top of the food chain may be supplanted by new species just as rapidly.

What is it that differentiates the weak from the strong? Are the winners no more than individuals or organisations who were in the right place at the right time? Or are there other factors at work that Darwin or Spencer would recognise?

Some individuals and businesses owe much to the accident of time and space. As Steve Jobs recognised, he had the enormous advantage of being born in 1955, smack in the middle of the ideal window for future leaders of the computer revolution that subsequently emerged in the mid 1970s. He was not alone—many of the founders of Microsoft and SUN were also born between 1954 and 1956. Of course, numerous other technology billionaires were born later than this, but their businesses operated further up the ‘technology stack’—that is, they relied on the existence of computers in the first place.

Meanwhile, in the mid twentieth century, a new corporate species was born. Whether publicly listed or privately owned, industrial conglomerates diversified into many activities and used financial engineering to build hugely powerful corporate empires that spanned nations and then continents. Yet, as the decades passed, these businesses grew weaker, not stronger. By the 1980s, the conglomerates became the favourite food of a new species, the leveraged buy-out specialists. KKR and its many cousins tore apart these ageing, unwieldy businesses, sold off the pieces, and made their own fortunes.

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