Dumping on Tim Cook Seems Easy, But It’s Misguided

| Hidden Dimensions

“Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment.” -- Mahatma Gandhi

Steve Jobs had a strong personality, one that wasn't amenable to second guessing or uninformed criticism. Notably, Tim Cook has a calmer, easier going personality. Social norms, our hero fixation and Apple bashing all combine to set Mr. Cook up for continued criticism. A deeper analysis is called for.

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There are all kinds of successful leaders. Some are flashy and some tend to be more introspective. That's a well known phenomenon in business, government and the military.

One example I'm familiar with, because I've been reading some excellent history books about World War II, is that of admiral William "Bull" Halsey. He was a colorful admiral, aggressive, and loved by his sailors. He was a fierce warfighter. But he also made some critical mistakes that cost American lives, and as a result, his legacy is uneven. A calmer, more strategic, less colorful if you will, Chester Nimitz has a secure place in naval history and has an aircraft carrier named after him. Halsey does not, for the reasons I cited.

Throughout our culture of TV and movies, for the sake of entertainment, we tend to glorify the heroics. Rarely, we see the more realistic and down to earth movies (for example, the Bridges at Toko-Ri), quite unfashionable now. We don't see much when it comes to the downside of excessive bluster and risk taking in our entertainment (or politics). The writers and directors know that failure won't make money and isn't inspirational. The culture of the charismatic, invincible hero is entrenched in human culture.

The Steve Jobs Imperative

One of the ways I think about Steve Jobs is to remember that he lost control of his fate in the early days of Apple. Mr. Sculley relieved him of his duties in the Macintosh division, but contrary to popular misconception, Mr. Jobs was not actually fired from Apple. As a result, everything that Mr. Jobs did at Apple when he returned was focussed on making sure he remained in firm control of the company he sought to resurrect and make great again. That's a powerful personal motivation. It's very different than the situation most CEOs encounter.

Then, when I think about what kind of person Mr. Jobs may have had in mind to succeed him, I don't think of it terms of: "here's a smart, accomplished fellow, Mr. Cook. I hope he can hold up against my legacy." Rather, I think about it in terms of what kind of person would be best to lead a company that's blossomed into mid-life maturity and success.

That's why I get annoyed when I see articles that try to compare Tim Cook to Steve Jobs and suggest that Tim Cook doesn't have the product vision needed to lead Apple. I've seen many articles in which the author opines that all the shipping products were envisioned by Steve Jobs and are simply minor refinements today, on Tim Cook's watch. They argue, when it comes time for the Next Big Thing, will Tim Cook have the necessary vision?

It's easy to make Tim Cook the target of that criticism given that we're all too accustomed to the glitz and daring of fictional and even some real world heros. The reason I don't think the criticism is warranted is because Apple is a company of many thousands of employees who were molded by the philosophy of Mr. Jobs. The character of the company can be instantiated by a single co-founder, but the company as a whole is now steeped in that culture. And so, for Mr. Jobs’s successor to try to become a second, alternative, countermanding influence with huge charisma and flash would only end up interfering with the essentials of Apple's culture built by Mr. Jobs. I believe Mr. Jobs understood that in his succession plan.

Unfortunately that opens Apple to criticism by armchair quarterbacks who can get away with outrageous criticism. If confronted by Mr. Jobs, he’d put the whining to a painful end in a second with a forceful putdown. Or if a path by Mr. Jobs really did look questionable, we’d give him the benefit of the doubt because of his track record. As a result, to use the current management style of Tim Cook as an opportunity to escape the wrath of a contemptuous Steve Jobs for outright editorial stupidity is dishonorable.

Personality Types

I have seen, in my career, and also in my readings, many cases where a successor to a charismatic, perhaps feared, leader is the quiet intellectual. These kinds of men and women are analytical and introspective. They can't be underestimated because, like a chess player, they'll prepare and calculate. If you're a competitor and not ready, they'll chew you up in a heartbeat.

Moreover, great employees can't live in fear forever. Fear can motivate when the troops think that the battle may be lost. But when the victory is secured, fear interferes with the values that made the war worth fighting in the first place.

Steve Jobs marshaled the necessary forces, but now that they're in place, it takes a master planner to navigate through the perilous waters of business warfare. To do that, it helps when the employees love their work and their leader.

The analogue to the military seems to apply. In the early, difficult stages of WWII, we needed men like Admiral Bull Halsey to turn the tide of a loosing battle in tactical combat. But behind the scenes, and after the tide has turned, we needed those calm, cool, analytical masterminds to manage the winning effort and bring coherence and closure, avoiding needless risk for the sake of continued bravado.

Mr. Cook's presentation skills have a long way to go. He's an easy target for criticism by writers who are looking only on the surface. But I believe it would be unwise to callously question the ability of this man, hand picked by Steve Jobs, to supervise the ongoing success of Apple. Switching metaphors for the finale to music, Apple's character and its vision isn't held by a single leader anymore. Instead, it's programmed into the Apple orchestra. Tim Cook's challenge is to be the new orchestra leader without getting the ensemble out of tune.

Comments

jfbiii

Steve Jobs’s last “One More Thing” = Tim Cook

b9bot

Totally agree, Tim Cook is Tim Cook. Comparing him to Steve Jobs just isn’t right and should not be done ever. Tim is a calm and very controlled individual and I think he’s got a lot to give to Apple. I think to many arm chair critics under estimate him and all of Apple. Wait and see, I think Apple as a whole will put those arm chair critics in the toilet!

graxspoo

Thanks for making these points. Tim Cook may not have the charisma of Jobs, but I think it’s pretty clear that he definitely played a big role in Apple’s success, and he seems to be a very capable CEO.
I think the larger danger for Apple is one touched on recently in this column, and that’s the groupthink phenomena of the ‘Abilene Paradox.’ There are lots of creative people at Apple, but who calls the shots about what’s “great” and what “stinks?” The absence of this isn’t Tim Cook’s fault, and it’s not always the case that this sort of discrimination needs to rest on the shoulders of a single individual, but, I believe there is a leadership vacuum at Apple in this area, and one that they will need to creatively solve as the company moves out of the shadow cast by Jobs’ passing.

aardman

The best example I can think of for what you are talking about Mr. M is Michael Eisner and Robert Iger.  Everyone thought that Iger was a good capable lieutenant but was surely going to be a failure as Disney’s CEO.  He just seemed to pale in comparison to the larger than life persona of Eisner.  But guess what?  Iger did pretty well, he righted the ship of Disney which by the time Eisner left was getting a bit rocky.  One of the things Iger did was to stabilize Disney’s relationship with Pixar and Steve Jobs which finally ended in Disney acquiring Pixar but Pixar people taking over Disney animation.—Which saved Disney’s animation business, by the way.

As I said, a lot of people thought that Iger wasn’t up to snuff.  One notable exception was Steve Jobs who thought Bob Iger was a great choice.  I think Steve Jobs’ front row seat on that succession drama had a tremendous effect on his choice of a successor CEO for Apple.

mrmwebmax

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John, another great article, as always. You should hang out with The Macalope sometime…the two of you would really hit it off based on this topic alone.

To the writers and pundits out there, no one will ever be Steve Jobs. And they’re right: No one—at least not in the near future—is going to take a company a few months from bankruptcy and turn it into a worldwide powerhouse, revolutionize computing, movies (PIXAR), music (iPod/iTunes), smartphones (iPhone) and tablets (iPad) in the process, all the while becoming a rock star celebrity in his own right. No CEO right now is going to have recognition enough to warrant prominent parodies on SNL, Mad TV, and who knows where else. But that’s what it took for Steve Jobs to make Apple what it is today.

To make Apple what it will be tomorrow, I agree: They need Tim Cook.

Tim Cook did what perhaps no one at Apple ever did before, and no more so prominently than with the iPad: Tim Cook made Apple affordable, while still preserving its margins. No longer a niche company catering to creative types (like me, since 1988), Apple is a worldwide powerhouse catering to a vast array of peoples and budgets, with a vast (albeit tightly focused) array of products.

That takes supply-chain management, and from everything I’ve read, no one does that better than Cook. As for creative? Apple still has its engineers plus Sir Jonny Ive on its side. The run ain’t over yet. I just see them getting stronger.

As for the naysayers? It will only take one new breakthrough product—the next iMac/iPod/iTunes/iPhones/iPad—under Cook’s watch to put them in silence. My money’s on Apple. I will forever admire the accomplishments and mourn the loss of Steve Jobs…but agreed, he made Apple what it is today. And I’m sure he made sure it would function as elegantly as any iProduct developed under his watch.

John Martellaro

aardman:  Indeed, Mr. Iger is another great example. Thanks.

iJack

Only a year has passed.  Given a long product pipeline, I think it’s too early to tell if Cook was a good choice, or not.  The tells will start with who leaves Apple for other pastures, and who maintains their commitment to Apple. 

My focus will be on Jonny Ive.

ash-pak

I seem to remember plenty of Steve jobs bashing.

wab95

John:

I think the WWII analogy is correct and appropriate. Strategy, tactics and leadership style have ever been key ingredients in winning any campaign.

Indeed, one can look at any number of human undertakings and enterprises across recorded time and find parallels. The leadership quality it takes to found a movement are seldom the same ones required, once it has achieved a measure of equilibrium, to sustain it. A capable pair of hands commingled with a deep-seated understanding of its goals and immersion in its culture, are generally the ingredients to successful implementation and taking it to the next level.

So salient is this truth, I argue, that one can find its parallel in nature; the energy required to initiate a reaction (the activation energy) is fundamentally different than that required to sustain the reaction.

Moreover, the titular head of any enterprise is seldom, apart from those rare geniuses like SJ, the same individuals who will provide the technical means for the next breakthrough. Rather, the imperative of leadership, at this stage, is to provide the environment and resources to make those breakthroughs happen; not least amongst those resources is the freedom to experiment and to fail.

In my view, Tim Cook is just the type of successor Apple requires at this stage, and if we believe that SJ was half the genius we now laud him to have been, then we should accept that there had to be a rationale for his choice, and give Cook et al some breathing room.

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