“There are no shortcuts in evolution.” -- Louis D. Brandeis
It's been a year since Steve Jobs, the greatest technical visionary of our time, passed away. How has that impacted us and how has Apple evolved in the meantime? What's in store for Apple now?
When I reflect back on the passing of Steven P. Jobs on 5 October 2011, there was a feeling of such great loss that, like others, I feared for the future of Apple, Inc. How could a corporation, resurrected from the dead and brought to vigorous, stellar success, survive the passing of this man? A radio station called me that early evening -- it was the first I heard because I had been out of the office -- and I was so taken aback, I told them I had to pass on instant commentary.
In the last year, we've seen all kinds of prognoses for Apple, ranging from The Company Will Be Just Fine to the other extreme, Apple Cannot Survive This Loss. Mr. Tim Cook has been evaluated and scrutinized perhaps more than any other CEO in modern times. He was hand picked by Mr. Jobs, but had never been a CEO before. Many worried. Could he navigate the perilous waters? Command the ship? Could he conjure an equal, magnificent vision? Or would he be merely a caretaker CEO for a company that had already reached its peak?
A year has given us time to properly collect our thoughts and look at those concerns with perspective.
The way I see it now, the life and the passing of Steve Jobs is part of the natural evolution of the Apple entity rather than an evolutionary dead end. One analogy would be from astronomy: a supernova. In a single burst of energy, it can outshine its parent galaxy, but the explosion is relatively short in star time. The long term effects, however, are enormous and pervasive.
Heavy metals are seeded into the galactic medium and eventually provide the raw material for new solar systems. In fact, every atom in our bodies, heavier than hydrogen, was synthesized inside a star before it exploded. So, while the star dies and life near a supernova might be extinguished, the basis is laid for new life in the future.
Supernova remnant. Image credit: Wikipedia
Another example comes to mind. I was privileged to work on an advanced R&D project at Lockheed Martin Astronautics in the late 1980s. Our first director was a firebrand, a hard-nosed, incendiary fellow who hustled, stoked the government, got us our funding, and fought to get us what we needed -- including our own building. But he drove the engineers crazy with his volatile personality and antics. We lived in semi-terror, but appreciated what he did for us.
In a few years, as the project matured, it was time for a new director. This fellow was an aerospace golden boy, suave, intellectual, and he wore horn-rimmed glasses. He calmed us all down and got us better organized. You could sit down and have a chat with him, and he understood exactly everything about both the technology and the desired working atmosphere. That was a glorious time too. Perhaps even better.
So when I think about Mr. Jobs, I think about evolutionary effects. The kind of man required to run a mature, powerful, innovative company is not the same kind of man who was required to resurrect a dead corporation, step on toes, be a cast-iron son-of-a-bitch, and breathe into Apple the life-giving spirit of his vision that burned so bright.
Steve Jobs was that life-giving event, the supernova that launched a great company. Twice. But incredibly smart people, new, young visionaries in their own right, cannot long endure the overlord. In time, they must build their own planetary systems and cultures. Life goes on.
Apple isn't a dying company; it's an evolving company. It needs a different kind of CEO in its mid-life. Back in March, I wrote a kind of mid-term report card on Tim Cook. At the time, I listed a dozen significant actions by Mr. Cook, and they reflect the kind of leadership I'm describing here. Recently, the apology to Apple customers regarding iOS 6 maps again punctuated Mr. Cook's character. Namely, companies that are large and powerful owe a debt of honesty and courtesy to customers that a young, struggling, distracted company may not be able to afford.
Steady as She Goes
Like the Lockheed Martin example above, I am told by friends that the ambience inside Apple is better now. There's a calm, quiet confidence, good cheer and less tension. The terror of possibly running into Steve Jobs on campus or in a meeting is gone. The pressure remains, but life on the Apple campus is good.
Does this shift in atmosphere means that Apple cannot remain brilliant? I think not. It would be like saying that immigrants who came to the U.S. from Europe in the 20th century could never achieve their full potential after leaving a glorious homeland. Rough, new, scary and unpredictable environments create new opportunities. Doors that were previously closed may now be open thanks to Mr. Cook's calm, steady personality and his ability to work with others.
I think Mr. Cook understands his new role. His job is to oversee the next phase of Apple's life cycle. To do that, he has to imprint his own leadership style on the company. Over the long run, it won't be so much about what Steve Jobs did as what the new, evolved Apple can do now, properly guided, seeing far, standing on the shoulders of a giant.
Mr. Jobs image credit: Apple