IPods, iPads, and iPhones would have baffled the German social scientist Max Weber, who died in 1920. The father of modern sociology, however, would surely have understood something about the man behind those futuristic gadgets. Weber defined the “charismatic leader” as one whose influence stems from almost preternatural insights and imagination, and who inspires devotional loyalty from his followers—which adds up to an uncanny description of Steve Jobs.
Weber also argued that organizations structured around a charismatic leader are doomed to lose their vigor after the great one leaves the scene. That prediction became relevant on Jan. 17, when Jobs, perhaps the most charismatic chief executive officer in business history, announced yet another medical leave from Apple.
The company he has led to breathtaking heights. In a letter to his 50,000 employees, Jobs handed off daily control of the company to Apple’s chief operating officer, Timothy D. Cook. He didn’t say when he would return or why he was leaving, but the undertones were ominous. He referred to his management team’s plans for 2011 and sounded an unusual emotional note: “I love Apple so much and hope to be back as soon as I can.”
The announcement triggered speculation about Jobs’ health—and minor indigestion among shareholders. It also posed yet again the unavoidable question that now looms over 35-year-old Apple: What happens to a modern company whose innovations and inspirations are so closely tied to the vision of one leader when that leader’s influence is in decline? The only thing certain is that the Apple of the future—whether in a year or a decade—will look a lot different from the reliable engine of innovation and profits that investors and customers know so well.
Jobs’ health problems have not interrupted Apple’s historic run of successes. Apple devices and online services such as iTunes have, one by one, disrupted the music, mobile phone, media, and video-game industries. Even the Macintosh is on a tear. It now commands 9.7 percent of the personal computer market in the U.S., up from less than 3 percent a decade ago. Along the way, Apple has become the second most highly valued company in the world, behind only Exxon Mobil and well ahead of tech nemesis Microsoft.
On Jan. 19, Apple announced its latest results: $6 billion in profits during the last three months of 2010, a record that surpassed the previous high by 40 percent.
With all that momentum, Apple can thrive for years, even without Jobs’ daily presence. Although the product plan may be mapped, Apple without Steve Jobs will be a less interesting company. Jobs, according to the portrait laid out in countless biographies and articles over the years, is a control freak with a compulsive attention to detail. ‘Jobs’ obsession with process and detail even filters down to how he rolls out products. Besides exhaustively rehearsing his own presentations, he often insists that executives from partner companies submit to a week or more of dry runs—and has been known to bounce execs at the last minute if they show signs of nerves that could mar a Jobs keynote.
At Apple, rather than recruiting or developing the most promising and versatile general managers, Jobs concentrates on hiring the best person in a given discipline. The result is a team of highly skilled specialists who operate in a system that still resembles a startup. There are no separate lines of business and no business unit chiefs with responsibility for their own balance sheets. Important decisions are usually made at weekly Monday strategy sessions with Jobs overseeing his 10-member executive team.
Who will steer the ship when, inevitably, Jobs is gone? Most analysts are unreservedly enthusiastic about the talents of Tim Cook, who is widely viewed as Apple’s next chief executive if and when Jobs permanently steps aside. Cook, 50, is an operations genius, adept at cutting costs while delivering complex products on time and coping with staggering growth targets. He’s also monastic and incredibly devoted to Apple. He has oversight of sales, customer support, and logistics—meaning much of the company already reports to him. During Jobs’ previous two absences, Cook steadied the corporate ship so capably that in 2010 he was rewarded with $59 million in salary and stock. Still, during those past medical leaves and now this new one, Jobs has remained involved in all major strategic decisions, Apple says. In that respect, Tim Cook is untested as a potential CEO.
But the longtime Jobs ally has little experience minting new hardware. Some outsiders fear that Jobs alone can stir this mix of talent. Take him out of the picture and the water goes calm. In the short term, however, the current team might actually outperform in the absence of its mercurial and stubborn mentor. Without Jobs’ obstinacy at the negotiating table and unrelenting dedication to simplicity, it’s possible Apple could have avoided its rare mistakes.
It’s not an especially auspicious way to look at Apple’s future. But it suggests that whatever happens, the spirit of Steve Jobs will live on within Apple, and when it finally has to, Apple will carry on without him.