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

“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.


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.