There has been much discussion of leadership at Apple recently. Is Steve Jobs indispensable? Short answer: “yes” In fact: “absolutely.” Jobs is the star we pay attention to through all Apple outpourings. Even in the unlikely even that an Apple user or would-be user, or even hater, has not heard Jobs’s name, or seen him on video or in a photo, what that person would most likely align to as special behind Apple products is clearly Jobs’s sensibility, his outlook towards the world, his remarkable vision and foresightedness, his particular aesthetic, his contact with the zeitgeist and so on.
I wish Jobs the best of health and a long life, of course. He has done so much to affect so many current experiences, even of those who have never once used and Apple product. Still, though Apple Computer, Inc. might persist and possibly even do well without Jobs at the helm, I suspect it is only likely to flourish under his continued leadership. Without him, even with some other visionary at the helm, the strong alignment we have with Jobs – for those of us who do — will dissipate over time. The urgency of buying or checking out the latest Apple products and services just will not be the same.
In an article in Sunday’s NY Times (1/18/09), Steve Lohr oddly quotes two different musicians, one of whom is now a corporate “innovation consultant” to the effect that this is not so, that Jobs has solid people in place to continue the company without hIm.
“ ‘Nobody is indispensable indefinitely,’ said John Kao, a jazz musician and innovation consultant to corporations and governments. ‘The “great man” theory does hold water, but mainly at times of transition when a charismatic leader lends what psychologists would call an individual’s ego strengths to the organization or country as a whole, to allow it to regroup and move forward.’ ”
“ ‘As special as Steve is, I think of Apple as like a great jazz orchestra,’ said Michael Hawley, a professional pianist and a computer scientist who once worked for Mr. Jobs. ‘Steve did a superb job of recruiting a broad and deep talent base. When a group gets to be that size, the conductor’s job is pretty nominal — mainly attracting new talent and helping maintain the tempo, adding bits of energy here and there.’”
Bull. I submit that these musicians don’t understand their own fields, much less the secret of contemporary management. Quite the contrary of what they say, the larger a musical ensemble, the more crucial is the conductor. This is especially true of jazz orchestras, which is one reason the great ones of the past — such as Duke Ellington’s or the two of the Dorsey brothers — are no more. When even a standard, classical symphony orchestra changes conductor, the whole sensibility and a good deal of the fan base changes, and these are orchestras who, to a large extent, keep playing music by the same few composers. The conductor doesn’t just choose the musicians and the pieces to be played, but approaches them with a style and sensibility and a personality that the musicians as well as the audience must respond to.
I have no doubt that Jobs is gifted at spotting and nurturing talent, but that is not his only role at Apple (nor was it at Pixar or NeXT). People in the company might come to him with many wonderful ideas, and it’s possible he initiates few innovations these days. But he very clearly exercises remarkable powers of selection in choosing what should go forward — and when — and what should not. (Sometimes he makes poor choices, and he probably ignores certain areas, but that’s inevitable.)
Looking at the way Apple spokespeople (who are sometimes managers of one area or another) dress makes it clear they follow Jobs slavishly. I very much doubt that among the talents Jobs has nurtured or could nurture is another Steve J. Such a person would almost certainly be at sharp odds with Jobs and would have gone his or her own way. And of course that person would be very unlikely to share Jobs’s exact style or vision. By way of analogy, think of a great dramatist or novelist or painter (or a great conductor to stick to the musical metaphor). Such a person might mentor another but not in any way someone who would draw the same set of fans, or resonate with similar enthusiasm.
And Other Companies?
What has all this to do with corporations in general? Quite a lot, I think. Companies that lack strong vision and can thus draw and keep consumer attention are going to have an increasingly hard time staying afloat as they encounter others that compete in one area or another. Any area that begins to be lucrative under current conditions will quickly engender competition from others who will pour into the field. The only moderately long term success will be among those who develop the kind of fan base few besides Apple have now. When the original leader quits for whatever reason, any such company will face an increasingly perilous transition. A new charismatic leader will be needed for the long term if the company is to continue to prosper, not just for the supposed transition period. Generic executives such as John Sculley and Gil Amelio were no good at running Apple. They will be less good in general anywhere, I suspect. (Though Bill Gates is more of shrewd businessman than a Jobs-like visionary, he is enough of a visionary and inspirer that Steve Ballmer, his hand-picked successor, has been unable to replace him at Microsoft.)
Of course, though I hope that like Elliott Carter, the composer, Steve Jobs stays healthy and at work past 100, that doesn’t mean that Apple or any other particular corporation is likely to survive that long. Even if he remains that vibrant, Jobs will at some point perhaps not be so good at responding to the zeitgeist. Keynes famously said that “in the long term we will all be dead,” and that’s true of companies too. In fact, their life expectancy is growing ever shorter, I think, even as that of humans increases.
Subtleties to Bear in Mind
However, 2 caveats: (1) Just as Elvis still has fans long after his death, fans of Jobs would certainly continue to have an interest in Apple products for a long time should Jobs leave the Co. for whatever reason. Still, in the fast-moving world of computers, etc., oldies but goodies are not of much value, so a Jobs-like vision would still have to be in effect.
(2) Still more germane, the visionary behind a line of products or services need not be the CEO. Consider Google in this regard, where Larry Page and Sergey Brin are sill very active despite not being the CEO.
(Disclaimer: I own some Apple stock.)