There is mounting speculation that Apple CEO Tim Cook’s job is in jeopardy. This may be so, but firing him will not solve the company’s fundamental problem, one that no leader can address in the short term.
Doomed to repeat Disney’s past?
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana
Shortly after Jobs’ death, Apple held a celebration of his life throughout its worldwide organization. At the event, Cook spoke movingly of Jobs’ determination that Apple not repeat the experience of the Walt Disney Company following the death of its iconic founder and namesake. In Jobs’ view, Disney’s company floundered for many years because those he left behind tried to carry on as Walt would want to do. Jobs, mindful of this, requested that no one ask “what would Steve do,” but simply do the right thing.
Walt Disney’s health declined rapidly: When doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer, they gave him six months to two years to live. In the actual event, Disney only survived a little more than six weeks. There was no time to prepare for a succession, and no one else had Disney’s vision for the company anyway. Meanwhile, Jobs fought cancer for years and must have had some sense of his mortality. Apple had a succession plan and executed it. Yet, even after turning the CEO position over to Cook, Jobs continued to play a major strategic role in Apple up to the day before he died.
Artists and entrepreneurs
It would be easy to fault Steve Jobs for not letting go and allowing Apple to develop an identity independent of his own, but that would miss the point. Perhaps the single thing he and Walt Disney held most in common was that they were more like artists than businessmen. Once Pablo Picasso passed away there were no more new Picasso paintings. There were many imitators, but only one Picasso. Similarly, Walt Disney’s company produced new content, but it wasn’t the same — could not be the same — as Disney would have done it. Apple will release new products and innovations in the future, but at some point they won’t have any trace of Jobs’ fingerprints on them. Whatever actions Cook and his successors choose going forward is irrelevant to that point.
What can Apple do about this? In the short term, they can do little or nothing. The speculation about Cook, if true, speaks more of a board grasping for straws and quick fixes. They would do better to heed Santayana’s wisdom quoted above. The history of Disney leads to the conclusion that there are no quick fixes for Apple. Disney floundered for well over a decade until a new generation of leadership reinvented it. It survived thanks to a wealth of intellectual property with a virtually infinite shelf life. Apple doesn’t have a decade, but it does have a loyal user base. It has the blueprint for success. All it needs is to do the right thing, no matter who the CEO is.