One of the defining characteristics of Silicon Valley is how entrepreneurs swing boldly from job to job, sometimes navigating wildly into little-charted territory with a mind to turn an industry sector upside down.
Remember? Remember when Johnson was king of the retail world, overseeing the fabulously successful and incredibly crowded Apple stores? The stores were pieces of art selling pieces of art that also happened to be how millions communicated with others, entertained themselves, kept track of their lives and expressed their creative sides.
And what did he do? He left all that in 2011 and headed over to J.C. Penney, a 109-year-old department store that spoke more to Ozzie and Harriet than Woz and Jobs. You'd be forgiven for wondering at the time: "What was he thinking?"
And now Johnson, 54, who was canned Monday, is likely wondering the same thing. Maybe this boldly swinging thing is not all it's made out to be. Maybe companies and executives should find a rut and stick with it.
Consider this: Penney installed Johnson to replace Myron Ullman, the man Penney announced Monday would return as the new CEO. (Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.)
And over at Apple? It took the company less than year to fire John Browett, the guy they hired to take Johnson's place. Maybe what we need here is a do-over: Ullman, you go back to running J.C. Penney -- or jcpenney as the wanna-be hipper store likes to be called. And Johnson, you go back to running the Apple stores, which is sticking with Apple Store for now. There is an opening, after all.
A Penney news release was sparse when it came to discussing Johnson and his performance. It quoted board chairman Thomas Engibous as saying: "On behalf of the board of directors, we would like to thank Ron Johnson for his contributions while at jcpenney and wish him the best in his future endeavors."
Those Penney people have a funny way of showing gratitude, don't they? First they cut Johnson's pay by 97 percent last week. Then this week they fire him. On the other hand, let's take a look at Johnson's "contributions."
First, Penney stock lost half its value during Johnson's tenure, a period during which Apple stock soared before retreating but still coming out far ahead. Add to that, Penney's sales were down 25 percent last year. Makes it easy to agree with hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, an early Johnson backer, who told Reuters that Johnson had made "big mistakes," the results of which were "very close to a disaster" for Penney.
Not really what those at J.C. Penney, who saw Apple visionary Johnson as a savior, had in mind. So, what happened? Getting the full story behind these big firings is always tricky. But it wouldn't be crazy to suggest that Johnson took the sort of arrogance that seems to work so well for Apple to an old-line business where it just didn't fly.
It's not uncommon in Silicon Valley to run into executives who are bold and confident. Leaders who don't shy away from thinking they are the smartest person in the room, that they know something no one else does. It leads to the kind of risk-taking that can propel companies -- or derail careers.
As the new CEO, Johnson came in with a plan to spiff up stores and do away with coupons and dramatic sale prices. Instead, shoppers were going to get everyday low prices. The problem is that shoppers -- J.C. Penney shoppers certainly -- like deals. It's part of the modern American sport of consuming. And everyday prices, being the same every day, simply become the regular price for that floral print sun dress or that stripped cotton polo shirt.
Not to mention that what works for selling gleaming tech devices that instantly mesmerize their fans isn't necessarily what works for selling crew socks and three-packs of Jockey briefs.
But Johnson, various reports indicate, would have little way of knowing what his customers wanted. He refused to employ a well-established practice in retail (and other businesses for that matter): Trying out new ideas on a small scale to see how they are embraced, or not.
Apple, after all, didn't test-market products or call in focus groups to tell engineers how to design the next device that would dazzle us. What was good for Apple, Johnson seemed to argue, was good for J.C. Penney.
Only it wasn't.
The point here isn't that the customer is always right. The point here is that sometimes even the boss has to acknowledge that he isn't always right either.
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.