Changing of the Guard at Apple: Lessons in Leadership

Even the inevitable shocks us. When terminally ill or very old loved ones pass on, we still feel loss and the passing of an era even though we knew it was inevitable. We have known that sooner or later Steve Jobs would no longer lead Apple, yet when it happens we feel loss and uncertainty: loss of what was and uncertainty about what will be.

Apple has the momentum and the leadership in new CEO Timothy Cook to continue to grow and dominate its sector for a long time. Cook has played and will continue to play a crucial role in Apple's astounding commercial success. But Apple's unique corporate soul is the soul of Steve Jobs not of Tim Cook, and if the company is to remain as dynamic as it was, it will change as a new leader infuses it with new soul; his own soul. Cook's message to employees on August 24th was designed to be reassuring, but it is not the reality:

I want you to be confident that Apple is not going to change. I cherish and celebrate Apple's unique principles and values. Steve built a company and culture that is unlike any other in the world and we are going to stay true to that -- it is in our DNA. We are going to continue to make the best products in the world that delight our customers and make our employees incredibly proud of what they do.

It is not that Apple makes the best products in the world, it is that Apple makes products that no one else can. This is because Apple doesn't make products, it never has; Apple produces original works of art! In every Apple product there is something of Steve Jobs in the same way that in every work of art there is something of the artist. You can copy a work of art, but you cannot reproduce the human energy, passion and soul they contain. Apple products are works of art, and Steve Jobs is the artist.

There is something else unique about Apple: Apple has never demanded that we change the way we think and work in order to adapt to technology. Apple has adapted technology to us. This is why infants intuitively know how to use Apple products, and why adults love them.

Yet another feature of Apple innovation is that with every new product Apple has redefined swaths of contemporary life. The Mac redefined people's interface with technology, iPod and iTunes redefined how music is listened to, delivered and stored, iPhone converged mobile computing, telephony and entertainment, and iPad created a new space for how we access information. These three differentiators: Apple as art, adapting technology to humans and redefining large tracts of life, go way, way beyond making "the best products in the world," or "delighting customers and making employees proud." These three differentiators come from Steve's DNA not Apple's. So long as Apple was joined to Steve by a paternal umbilical cord, these differentiating properties were infused into Apple's DNA too, but now the umbilical cord is cut and a new DNA will evolve for Apple... or will someone else become tomorrow's Apple?

Google's accelerating strides into mobile communication and hardware design and manufacture, suggests that it has been preparing for a post-Steve Jobs era for years and that it intends to be tomorrow's Apple. Perhaps Google cannot become the artist that Steve is, but certainly like Apple under Jobs Google can adapt technology to humans and redefine the ways we live and work. And now Google has a powerful advantage that Apple no longer has: the hands-on presence of the founders who fathered it and gave it its soul.

Founders like Jobs, Brin and Page, who see their companies as vehicles by which to live their purpose, relentlessly push their organizations' boundaries and give them their edge. Founders do this in the same way a proud father seeing the potential in his son or daughter might push their boundaries. It is hard for anyone to replace that role of a father, and it is hard to replace a founder whose soul has penetrated every cell of his or her corporation's consciousness.

So what can Timothy Cook do? Here is what other leaders who have found themselves in similar situations have done:

  1. Understand, appreciate, value and articulate the soul of the company as it has been.
  2. Understand, appreciate, value and articulate your own soul; what makes you unique, what your value-drivers are, and what you believe to be the purpose for which you were put into this world.
  3. Check how aligned your own unique soul is with your company's existing corporate soul.
  4. Identify what additional factors your own soul (not your skills and talents, but your essence, that which makes you unique,) brings to the corporation; factors that your predecessor could not bring.
  5. Examine what the organization would look like if you successfully fused your uniqueness into what already exists, and articulate that vision.
  6. Design your blue-print for implementation: what has to change and what has to be preserved.
  7. Communicate your vision.

Tim Cook has inherited the leadership of a company that has awesome momentum, a momentum he himself helped to build with his talent, energy and vision of what could be. He has the time now to find his own soul and  harmouniously fuse it into Apple making the company something different but not inferior from what it was. While others strive to become tomorrow's Apple, Tim Cook -- drawing on his own unique essence as well as on everything that has made Apple great -- can forge the company into something that even Steve Jobs never envisioned.


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