Steve Jobs: Following in the footsteps of an icon


Steve Jobs, co-founder and iconic former CEO of Apple, died Wednesday. (Justin Sullivan/GETTY IMAGES)

This week’s On Leadership roundtable explores Tim Cook’s succession of Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple. The pieces, written for The Washington Post by leadership experts just days before Jobs’s death on Wednesday, examined the unique challenge of following in the footsteps of such an icon. While the discussion was framed around Tim Cook’s first product launch as CEO earlier this week (an event that fell short of many customers’, shareholders’ and analysts’ expectations), their reflections on how to lead Apple in the era after Steve Jobs have even greater resonance in the days since.

As Bill Gates, longtime competitor and fellow technology leader, wrote in a public statement following Steve Jobs’s passing, “The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had, the effects of which will be felt for many generations to come.”

Our leadership experts — William C. Taylor, Nancy Koehn and Carol Kinsey Goman — similarly acknowledged the legacy Jobs left, and discussed the unique challenges and context this creates for Cook as he takes the helm at Apple.

Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn writes that Tim Cook shouldn’t try to be Steve Jobs:

“[T]he 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.”

William C. Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company magazine and author of Practically Radical , also advises that Tim Cook set his own leadership course for Apple, partly because Jobs’s style would be difficult to emulate successfully:

“There’s no doubt that Steve Jobs will go down as one of the most creative, visionary, high-impact leaders of his generation—or any generation. But his genius has been of a uniquely personal kind: the ‘smartest-guy-in-the-room’ syndrome that is deserved in his case, but is decidedly underserved among so many CEOs who overrate the power of their intellect or the acuity of their vision. The reason so few leaders at other companies come close to Steve Jobs’s record is that they share many of the most demanding and controlling features of his personal style, but little of his insights and creativity.”

Leadership expert Carol Kinsey Goman, however, has a different take:

“[J]ust because Cook shouldn’t try to be Jobs doesn’t mean that he can’t learn from Jobs.”

The former CEO’s seven presentation strategies, in particular, struck Goman as worth studying and carrying forward as part of the continued leadership DNA of Apple.

Beyond his iconic presentations, there is much Steve Jobs leaves behind as legacy for the company he co-founded — not least the consistency with which he led Apple to exceed the expectations and imagination of the technology industry, and of the world’s consumers. “[W]hile everyone else was fumbling around trying to find the formula, he had the better instincts,” said Steve Wozniak in an interview with the AP. Wozniak started Apple with Jobs in 1976 out of the garage of Jobs’s parents’ home.

Those instincts are part of what onlookers fear may disappear from Apple’s leadership now that Steve Jobs has gone. And what more? “For Apple’s new CEO, getting the expectation game right may be his toughest job,” writes Post Leadership blogger Jena McGregor. “By following an iconic CEO, Cook is likely to be cut less slack than Jobs would if he was still in charge, and the level of scrutiny will be higher than ever. Add to that the ever-escalating hopes people have for what’s commonly called the most innovative company in the world and, at some point, he’s sure to disappoint.”

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?

Video: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak on Jobs

Lillian Cunningham is the editor and feature writer for The Washington Post's 'On Leadership' section.
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