Putting Steve Jobs in perspective

Posted on: October 4th, 2011 by bobmorris

Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan/GETTY IMAGES

Here is an excerpt from an especially insightful article written by Nancy Koehn. It is part of The Washington Post‘s recent  On Leadership roundtable exploring Tim Cook’s succession of Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple, and how to follow in the footsteps of an icon. At the conclusion of the excerpt, I provide links to several other outstanding articles. To read all of Koehn’s complete article, please click here.

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At this week’s iPhone 5 launch, we have our first official glimpse into Tim Cook’s leadership style as he takes the stage as Apple’s CEO. Many wonder how Cook will handle running a business handed over by one of greatest leaders and entrepreneurs of our time, Steve Jobs. Jobs is an icon who forever changed the way we connect. However, he was not the first American business leader to exercise tremendous influence over the way people live and think about what is possible. And this is not the first time such a leader has been replaced.

True, Jobs is on a short list of great American entrepreneurs. Along with Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller and Estée Lauder, Jobs has had an exceptional ability to envision what could be: products and services we couldn’t have imagined that we now can’t live without. These leaders all share an intense passion, a driving persistence, a keen sense of strategy and a relentless focus on the details of executing their respective visions. In the 14 years since he returned to the company he helped found, Jobs has embodied all of these attributes (as Apple’s long streak of product homeruns, its $350 billion market capitalization and its powerful brand attest). Given this context, the elephant in the room at the iPhone 5 launch is this: With Jobs gone, can Tim Cook carry the legacy?

Jobs has said he spent a lot of time selecting and developing his executive team. But Apple is not generally known for nurturing talent and giving its smart people the authority and scope to grow on the job. With Jobs’s dogged focus on “what’s next,” as well as his reputation for holding the reins of power tightly, it is reasonable to ask whether he has had the bandwidth (and inclination) to develop a succession plan that could render him obsolete.

But, history offers up several examples of gifted, charismatic (and controlling) founders successfully passing the baton to their successors. Take Thomas J. Watson, Sr., at IBM. By the time his son, Thomas J. Watson, Jr., took over in the 1950s, many of his father’s contributions had been baked into the company culture. Not only did this keep the organization from faltering during transition, it enabled the son to focus on the next stage of important changes as its market and customers evolved. At McDonald’s, Ray Kroc, who did more to create the fast-food company than anyone else, built a team from inside the company that could carry his leadership torch after he was no longer as active in the business.

The most decisive factor in a successful leadership transition—and the reason IBM and McDonald’s stayed strong—is whether the founder or CEO has effectively institutionalized his or her own contributions. Certainly those within Apple well understand Jobs’s values and attributes: his painstaking attention to detail, his boldness of vision and his confidence in understanding what the consumer wants. And as a longtime member of the company’s executive team, Tim Cook (who came to the company in 1998) has seen Jobs’s work ethic, energy and hands-on management style up close.

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Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School and author, most recently, of The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times.

More On This Story:

Tim Cook, here’s how to lead Apple

Putting Steve Jobs in perspective

Should Tim Cook wear a black turtleneck?

More from On Leadership

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