The Real Reason Apple's Tim Cook Has Been Underestimated

The influence of the entertainment industry is underappreciated. Strong leaders, for the sake of drama, are always depicted as extroverts—gregarious and flamboyant. Regrettably, that may have led the media to incorrectly diagnose Tim Cook in the comparison to Steve Jobs. Here's why observers got Tim Cook all wrong. Very wrong.


It's been drilled into our psyche. Strong, dynamic leaders must be outgoing. Extroverts. They must dazzles us with wit, charm and fast action.

The history of the enterprise and the military says that's not true. I've seen the reverse myself in the U.S. Air Force, in the aerospace industry, and I've seen refutation in the military history books I've read. Frequently, either by intention or accident, a more subdued, even slightly introverted personality inherits the job of a boisterous leader— and succeeds brilliantly.

At first the reaction to the newcomer is generally negative. People often enjoy being swept up in the glory of an outgoing leader. Often, however, that leader isn't as introspective and skilled in judgment as he or she might be. Not every military or enterprise leader who is energetic is the very best leader ever known. They, too, make mistakes.

The Hidden Virtues of Introverts

According to the Myers-Briggs personality test, an extrovert draws strength from being with others. But, often, in the stickiest of situations, the frenzy of the crowd and the moment can lead to unfortunate, off-the-cuff decisions. With enough of that, some strong leaders burn themselves out like a supernova.

Often, the battle requires leaders to be introverts, to draw strength from isolation. Introverts have the courage to sit for long periods of time and work out a solution that can't be had in a James T. Kirk moment of brash intuition. And speaking of the legendary, fictional starship captain, the contrast between the personalities of Spock and Kirk probably wasn't an accident. Gene Roddenberry, after all, was ex-military and had likely seen both types of leaders, especially those who were teamed together.

Star Trek's Captain Kirk and XO Spock. Image Credit: Paramount.

Other Perspectives

Rahul Sinha recently wrote an instructive article: " Why introverts can be great leaders?" He writes:

To my surprise, I read and heard this from many successful executives. They also confess that at some point in their journey they’ve had to work to overcome being overlooked or misjudged because of their quietness.

... It's no surprise that if granted an option, most companies would employ people who are extroverts. But there is no coincidence that the most admired or successful people of past and present are introverts. Some of the names are Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Michael Jordan, Charles Schwab, Larry Page, Steve Wozniak, J.K. Rowling and Steven Spielberg.

Not only can introverts get the job done, a Myers-Briggs "INTJ" type, "Field Marshall," but they can inspire confidence in other ways. Sinha starts with the notion that introverts are better listeners, and that can lead to sensitivity, consensus and great loyalty. Here's the full list with some minor paraphrasing of my own.

  1. They are better listeners.
  2. They embrace solitude, and what leader hasn't known loneliness?
  3. They are wizards of preparation
  4. Theu challenge themselves (and take that critical, extra second guess.)
  5. They dig deep into problems.
  6. They can be cool when others lose their cool.

The author continues:

Certainly, there are benefits to being an extrovert, but an introvert’s ability to hear others, planning, theorizing, organizing information, and thinking evidently has its own values!

Tim Cook

When Tim Cook first took over for Steve Jobs, the Kirk-Spock contrast was clearly evident. Those observers who didn't have much experience with executive management in the military or the enterprise perhaps fell into the cinematic trap of assuming that this quiet, thoughtful man could never be the equal of Steve Jobs.

Slowly, now, we're seeing that the off-the-cuff analysis was wrong. Tim Cook was recognized by Steve Jobs as the kind of man who could assume the leadership role after Apple was brought back from the dead. These are Apple's glory years. The company is no longer at risk of failing, and that means the firebrand gives way to the thoughtful navigator. Tim Cook is meeting the challenges of today, remolding Apple in his own image.

There have been lots of articles this week, post September 9, suggesting that, hey, Tim Cook is a pretty good leader after all. Their initial shock to the early days of Mr. Cook was like the case of the extroverted, beloved aircraft carrier captain who dies in an accident and is replaced by a calm, cool, analytic captain. At first the sailors are confused. They grouse. The light has gone out, they claim.

And then, one day, in the fires of combat, they see what this new smart, reserved captain can do to pull them safely through the danger and earn their respect. Their eyes are opened.

And all is well again.