Killing Steve Jobs: the future for Apple

The Economist had a couple of interesting articles last week. The first was yet another speculative piece about how Apple will fare after the departure of its iconic founder and CEO Steve Jobs. This article was notable for attributing to Jobs’ replacement, COO Tim Cook, a couple of things generally credited to Jobs, such as the removal of manufacturing from the balance sheet and the move to outsourcing. That move did much to make Apple financially viable when it was teetering on the brink and the revelation that it was in fact Cook’s idea bodes well for his stewardship of the Apple ship. Apart from that, it was typical fare: speculation and a tone of cautious optimism masking an underlying fretfulness.

People are right to fret about the departure of Jobs. If he was not directly responsible for the inventions, the marketing and design genius and business nous that brought Apple back from the brink, his leadership allowed these talents to come through from below. It was precisely the culture of risk-taking, the willingness to be “foolish”, as he put it, and rethink business models affecting whole industries, that made Apple what it is today. In business we hear an awful lot of that buzz word “sacred cow”. The sacred cow is that idea, structure, product or philosophy that no one dares to touch. Jobs was unafraid to kill these and rewarded that mentality among his team. Vertical integration was destroyed; the notion that Apple was just a computer company was destroyed; the notion that Apple could not be a retailer was destroyed. The notion that the music business or the publishing business could not be changed was destroyed. The notion that technology didn’t need to be elegant, couldn’t be a fashion statement: that was destroyed too. His was a culture in which ideas that challenged not only the status quo of the market, but which challenged the existing Apple ethos, were allowed to bubble up, to the profit of the company. His was a culture of creative disruption that reversed the fortunes of many.

The second Economist article, somewhat ironically, was a treatise railing against the cult of the CEO.

The worst thing Apple could do now is preserve Jobs in formaldehyde. The worst thing it could do is be so worried about living up to that legacy that it becomes risk-averse. If Jobs has done his job well, he has taught the company to be unafraid. Apple under Jobs excelled at killing sacred cows and doing the unthinkable. The next sacred cow Apple needs to kill is Jobs himself.

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