The ironic demiurge that rules Silicon Valley seems determined to test that dictum, yet again, with the announcement that Steve Jobs will be taking a leave of absence for health reasons.
For our younger readers, a recap of Apple’s history is probably in order. As everyone knows, Jobs founded Apple Computer in a garage with his friend Steve Wozniak; and grew it to be the first great personal computer company. Eight years later, Jobs directed the “pirate” development of the iconic Macintosh computer. Then Jobs was forced out in a corporate power struggle. In response, he started a new computer company, NeXT, took over Pixar in his spare time, and then turned the acquisition of NeXT by Apple into a reversal of the corporate power struggle. Jobs triumphantly returned to the position of CEO at Apple in 1997 . . . and almost from that moment Apple began its current rise with remarkable products with which Jobs will be forever identified: the Mac OS/X (based on the NeXT operating system), the iPod, iTunes and the iPhone.
With this as history – forced out, then using multiple successes to develop the basis to take back the company he clearly loves, then revolutionizing the world of consumer electronics – people can be excused for thinking that Jobs is the Indispensable Man, and that if his current illness prevents him from returning, Apple faces another period of decline like the disastrous Sculley interregnum.
But is it so? Not necessarily. Clearly the question of who will succeed Jobs remains open. But Tim Cook, Apple’s COO, has stepped in as he did when Jobs’ pancreatic cancer was diagnosed in 2004. And Tim Cook is no amateur; after years with IBM and Compaq, Cook came to Apple to fix its manufacturing problems, and succeeded. He’s been the “producer” to Jobs “director” for quite a while now.
Whether this illness forces Jobs out of the company or not, Apple is being presented with a long-term problem: How can you replace the visionary that made and remade the company? The board, by replacing Jobs with Sculley, made the disastrous mistake of believing that marketing skill alone was sufficient to keep Apple atop the technological wave. Jobs, while he has been central to Apple since then, is hardly the only person who has contributed to the actual creation of the Apple products. And just because Apple choose to promote Jobs as the personification of Apple’s products – at the expense of the real design teams – doesn’t mean that Jobs has spent nights slaving over the drawing board and CAD workstation designing the products himself. No, Jobs’ greatest contribution to the company has been his adamantine insistence that Apple products be different, exciting, what Jobs called “insanely great.” That, and his willingness to unleash his employees in pursuit of this goal . . .even if they fail.
Cook, and Apple, need others who have Jobs’ dedication to “insanely great” products. Even more, they need to empower those employees to chase those products at any cost. The failure of Apple during the Sculley years wasn’t due to a lack of imagination by Apple employees, but Apple management. Jobs’ genius was to get out of his employees’ way and to trust their talents.
If Jobs has been as good a CEO as he seems to be, he has been cultivating that dedication in people throughout the company. I suspect that the many successes of the last four years shows that he has done just that. And, whatever happens in the months ahead, that may be Steve Jobs’ greatest legacy.