Corporate leadership is a difficult quality to define; different individuals embody different philosophies pertaining to the fleeting notion of success, and, if the climate’s right, they just might knock it out of the park. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the example of Apple, which achieved new heights under visionary CEO Steve Jobs. Now, several years later, the tech company now appears to be performing just as well – possibly even better – under the lower-profile, workhorse-like leadership of current leader Tim Cook. Why could this be the case?
On Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs, a co-founder of Apple, was booted from the company in 1985 after an internal power battle with the board of trustees. He’d made a hundred million dollars in just a few years, but his precocious success was wearing off. And after seven years toiling at the helm of several new startup ventures, he was hemorrhaging funds and watching those closest to him walk away. By 1993 he was a virtual nobody. And then, in 1995, fate intervened. Pixar, another little Jobs-owned company, released Toy Story, the first full-length computer-animated feature. He immediately took Pixar public, became a billionaire almost overnight, and regained his place in the limelight. Meanwhile, Apple’s latest products were doing terribly. The company made the decision to bring Jobs back in 1997 after a series of disappointing financial results, and from there, the rest is the stuff of tech legend.
One of Steve Jobs’ greatest strengths was his ability to cut through the clutter and focus on what really mattered. In one celebrated incident, Steve explained his product development philosophy. He drew two columns on a whiteboard, labelled “Consumer” and “Pro,” along with two rows, called “Desktop” and “Portable.” He stated that the company needed to make only four computers: one for each of those four boxes.
This type of relentless tunnel-vision, an ability to dismiss distraction while becoming immersed in important projects, is what allowed for the genesis of the iMac – the computer system that arguably turned the corner for Apple and restored it to profitability. Other products released during Jobs’ watch include the iPod, iPhone and OS X.
Jobs’ single-mindedness did have its downsides. Driven to succeed at any cost and often dismissive of any opinions that weren’t his own, he often engendered conflict with his own employees. He was known to regularly insult them while delivering extremely harsh criticism. While some team members thrived and felt inspired in the ultra-competitive environment he created, others were alienated by the occasionally cult-like atmosphere and felt unwanted. Jobs had a way of framing issues and ideas in such a hyped-up and imaginative way that many in the industry chuckled heartily at the concept of a “Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field.”
Tim Cook Steps In
Jobs, in his last years at Apple, had full confidence in Tim Cook, who was chosen as his successor and stepped into the role in August 2011 after Jobs’ retirement. Cook comes from a supply-management background and is therefore more familiar with solid back-office management techniques. Equipped with a different set of skills, he isn’t what anyone would necessarily refer to as “groundbreaking.” A radical vegan ex-hippie he is not. And rather than hectoring his employees to get the last ounce of performance possible from them, Cook has been known to perform as more of a coordinator, enabler and coach to his workforce.
Cook believes in ignoring inevitable comparisons to Steve Jobs. As time passes and he builds his own legacy, that type of noise will recede into the background.
More difficult to overlook are the contentions that Apple has “lost its way” or become “less inventive” since the passing of Jobs. While it is true that the pace of innovation has slowed down somewhat, this speaks to the state of the tech industry more broadly – the landscape of digital innovation is in a much different place than it was a decade ago. Today, Apple has largely transitioned from popularizing new types of devices to maintaining its already-large product lineup. Apple is still bringing new and revolutionary offerings to the market, like the Apple Watch, HomeKit, which will allow users to use an iPhone, iPad or AppleTV to control of a wide variety of smart home automation devices including thermostats, security systems, and lighting systems from different manufacturers, and the newly announced Apple Music streaming service. While Jobs’ unremitting energy, aesthetic perfectionism and otherwise eccentric creative preferences were in tune with the era, Cook is well suited to succeed in today’s tech environment – in which the company must continue to fight tooth-and-nail for all that it has already achieved.
It’s difficult to take seriously the contention that Apple is struggling or losing its dominance in some way. Apple stock now trades at around $125 a share compared to $54 at the time of Jobs’ departure. While Steve’s contributions will undoubtedly be celebrated, and rightly so for decades to come, it’s time for a steadier and less volatile hand to have control of the reins. Under Tim Cook, Apple has a good chance of preserving what was best from the Jobs years without the complications caused by his abrasive leadership style.