Putting Steve Jobs in perspective

Justin Sullivan/GETTY IMAGES - Steve Jobs handed over the role of Apple CEO to Tim Cook, who makes his first public appearance as Apple CEO at the iPhone 5 launch.

This piece is part of this week’s On Leadership roundtable exploring Tim Cook’s succession of Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple, and how to follow in the footsteps of an icon.

At this week’s iPhone 5 launch, we have our first official glimpse into Tim Cook’s leadership style as he takes the stage as Apple’s CEO. Many wonder how Cook will handle running a business handed over by one of greatest leaders and entrepreneurs of our time, Steve Jobs. Jobs is an icon who forever changed the way we connect. However, he was not the first American business leader to exercise tremendous influence over the way people live and think about what is possible. And this is not the first time such a leader has been replaced.

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True, Jobs is on a short list of great American entrepreneurs. Along with Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller and Estée Lauder, Jobs has had an exceptional ability to envision what could be: products and services we couldn’t have imagined that we now can’t live without. These leaders all share an intense passion, a driving persistence, a keen sense of strategy and a relentless focus on the details of executing their respective visions. In the 14 years since he returned to the company he helped found, Jobs has embodied all of these attributes (as Apple’s long streak of product homeruns, its $350 billion market capitalization and its powerful brand attest). Given this context, the elephant in the room at the iPhone 5 launch is this: With Jobs gone, can Tim Cook carry the legacy?

Jobs has said he spent a lot of time selecting and developing his executive team. But Apple is not generally known for nurturing talent and giving its smart people the authority and scope to grow on the job. With Jobs’s dogged focus on “what’s next,” as well as his reputation for holding the reins of power tightly, it is reasonable to ask whether he has had the bandwidth (and inclination) to develop a succession plan that could render him obsolete.

But, history offers up several examples of gifted, charismatic (and controlling) founders successfully passing the baton to their successors. Take Thomas J. Watson, Sr., at IBM. By the time his son, Thomas J. Watson, Jr., took over in the 1950s, many of his father’s contributions had been baked into the company culture. Not only did this keep the organization from faltering during transition, it enabled the son to focus on the next stage of important changes as its market and customers evolved. At McDonald’s, Ray Kroc, who did more to create the fast-food company than anyone else, built a team from inside the company that could carry his leadership torch after he was no longer as active in the business.

The most decisive factor in a successful leadership transition—and the reason IBM and McDonald’s stayed strong—is whether the founder or CEO has effectively institutionalized his or her own contributions. Certainly those within Apple well understand Jobs’s values and attributes: his painstaking attention to detail, his boldness of vision and his confidence in understanding what the consumer wants. And as a longtime member of the company’s executive team, Tim Cook (who came to the company in 1998) has seen Jobs’s work ethic, energy and hands-on management style up close.

But Cook’s experience and a broad-based understanding of what Jobs has brought to the table are not quite the same thing as organizational capabilities (think first-rate market research) that deliver, day in and day out, on the promise of the founding entrepreneur. So from the perspective of history, the jury is out on whether Cook and Apple have what it takes to pick up the big, hefty gauntlet that Jobs has dropped.

While it’s crucial for Cook to embody the values Jobs has lived, it’s equally important that the new CEO find his own rightful place in the company. Tim Cook cannot be Steve Jobs. He can’t walk his path asking, “What would Steve do?” Instead, Cook needs to ask himself what he can do to further develop Apple with Jobs gone. Ultimately, he needs to make decisions based not on what Jobs would do, but on what Apple is and where it is headed. Planning a strategy around the company’s core competencies and unique position in the marketplace is what will keep Apple relevant and innovative, even without Jobs at the helm.

While the iPhone 5 launch will be Cook’s first public appearance as CEO, in some ways it’s just another launch—and a launch in which Jobs has played a big part. It seems likely that for the next few years, most new products in the Apple pipeline will bear Jobs’ imprint, even if he is no longer directly overseeing their development and launch. Given this, it may be awhile before we know if Cook has what it takes to keep up with the demanding speed of innovation and Apple’s world-class track record at both anticipating and shaping consumer wants in the tech world.

Nonetheless, Cook has a lot of hype to live up to as he walks on stage. Without Jobs’ wardrobe of black turtlenecks and blue jeans, Cook has to find a way to capture some of his predecessor’s infectious energy and evangelical zeal. This is not easy, but nothing less will do in winning over the market—the Apple customers, tech reviewers and analysts—to his own passion and vision.

Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School and author, most recently, of The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times.

Related Articles:

Nancy Koehn: Putting Steve Jobs in perspective

William C. Taylor: Tim Cook, here’s how to lead Apple

Carol Kinsey Goman: Should Tim Cook wear a black turtleneck?

 
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