Tuesday, January 18th, 2011
A great CEO has two conspicuous attributes of which he is acutely aware, a history of leadership, vision and success and a legacy sufficient to generate future success.
By every standard of CEO greatness, Steve Jobs has measured up to both parts of that definition, as demonstrated by his astonishing achievements. Apple Computer has been in existence for thirty-five short years, and for all but a disastrous mid-life dip of twelve years, Steve Jobs has been at its helm.
There are few CEOs who have the ability to successfully nurture a company from its embryonic stage to full maturity. Inventive genius rarely includes the skills necessary to lead the company as it becomes large enough to go public, much less to drive the firm on to become a global giant that can maintain its position at the forefront of communications technology. But that is precisely what Steve Jobs has done.
Steve Jobs created the legendary success that is Apple Computer when he was twenty years old. Five years later, he was at the helm when the company became a publicly traded stock on the NASDAQ. And only five years after that momentous event, he resigned under pressure from his board of directors who replaced him with John Sculley, a marketing man. The next twelve years were disastrous for the company as it racked up billions of dollars of losses. A humbled board of directors reached out to Steve Jobs to resuscitate his own company. Convinced of his own ability to breathe new life into the struggling firm, he agreed to come back without a salary, being paid solely in stock. That was in 1987.
Apple Computer today is a stunningly powerful behemoth. Despite its size, it is a strikingly nimble engine of inventiveness, producing a string of successful new products at an amazing rate. It is the envy of its competitors.
And now for the third time in seven years, Steve Jobs is taking a medical leave of absence. Tim Cook, the Chief Operating Officer since 2003, will run the company day-to-day as he did during those prior absences, in 2009 and 2004.
Conjecture and anxiety on the part of investors and the media are rampant which is not surprising. But it is important to remember that during Steve Jobs’ two previous absences the company continued to flourish. That was no fluke.
Steve Jobs is fifty-five years old and his passionate devotion to his company as its CEO is as evident today as ever. His own comments leave little doubt that he would love to lead the company he founded for many more years. That may or may not be an option.
A highly charismatic CEO can sometimes create the impression that without him his team possesses relatively little bench strength. Steve Jobs, like Warren Buffet, is a case in point. But that image can belie the truth. While Steve Jobs is the face of Apple, he is backstopped by impressive ranks of experienced business professionals whose ability has been proven during his earlier absences. It is inconceivable that the prescient and committed CEO who conceived, nurtured and took to full and robust adulthood the marvel that is Apple has been less insightful or thorough in assuring the future of his company. Twice before Apple’s rivals naively hoped the company would be left to wither away without his leadership. He knows from his experience in resurrecting Apple before how easily a great company can falter if it is not well positioned for its competitive future,
The market may be spooked by the loss, temporary or otherwise, of Steve Jobs. But he has already shown he knows that the legacy of a great CEO is forever tarnished if the enterprise fails without him for lack of comparably talented management. Steve Jobs is too much a visionary and too much in love with Apple to make that mistake.