What is a company? It's defined largely by how we view it. While we ponder how much Apple controls the news surrounding it and Steve Jobs' departure, and question whether he will return, we can perhaps learn from Apple and avoid similar mistakes.
The personality of a company relates to how we interact with the firm and view it from a distance through the media. Apple uniquely controls an impressive amount of the latter. While our opinion of a firm or individual can change in an instant, much like it did with Enron or, more recently, Bernie Madoff, that change is often because we didn't see them for who they were -- not because they actually changed.
The last time we saw someone like Jobs, it was Walt Disney, who defined the vision of the Disney properties and has never been replaced. Uncle Walt was the face of Disney. Those of us who were alive at the time saw him every Sunday night on TV. While Disney is now a media giant and a successful company, it almost failed and was dismantled through hostile takeover after he died. Today it is a vastly different entity, both inside and out. Walt's Disney wouldn't have needed Pixar to give it back its heart.
Steve Jobs and Apple
One of the first things Steve Jobs truly understood was that impression was everything. Much of who he actually is isn't for public view as a result. News photographers tell angry stories of how he tells them how to take the shot. One cameraman shared with me recently how Jobs once accidentally got away from his handlers on a red carpet and, surrounded by photographers, sprinted in a panic for the bushes and his car.
He was on record saying Apple's products were junk before he took the company back over. He then pitched those same products in a way that kept the company afloat until the product problem could be fixed. When he announced the iPhone, it not only didn't work, many believed it couldn't work. Had it not made the mid-year launch, it would have probably tanked the company.
Products that Apple creates, as detailed in the book "Inside Steve's Head," are driven by Jobs in order to have a stage presence that is tuned to Steve Jobs' view. Finishes and symmetry are incredibly important to him; he will spend hours before a show adjusting lighting and staging the event so that it is just right.
In a way, Steve Jobs at Apple is more of a director and lead actor than he is a CEO. It is as if Jack, the fictional head of Jack in the Box, were actually the real CEO. This isn't to belittle Jobs, this is to showcase that, like Walt, he not only looks bigger than life, he really is a critical part of the company. Without him, Apple, regardless of whether it survives, is simply not Apple, any more than the magic- and imagination-filled Disney we knew and loved under Walt is the more financially motivated Disney of today. Regardless of whether a company named Apple survives, Apple isn't the Apple we know without Jobs.
Can Apple Survive the Loss of Steve Jobs?
Now there is the $100 billion question. Recall that after he was fired in the 1980s, Apple dropped into decline. After a series of largely failed CEOs, including John Scully, who fired Jobs, the only reason Apple is still around is because Jobs came back. The next time he leaves, he won't be coming back. Given how Apple did without him, that is a serious problem. However, Disney eventually recovered from Walt's departure and, while I don't think it has the heart it once did, it actually has more reach and power.
But for Apple to survive, one of two things has to happen. Either it needs someone who can step into the job as Jobs has crafted it, and there may be only one person in the world who can do that, or it needs to restructure the company, much like Disney was restructured, to be less dependent on any one person and more like a regular firm that doesn't have an iconic, micro-managing leader.
Doing neither, which is the path it appears to be on as it continues in some form of weird denial that Jobs, just like every other human we know about, is mortal, is sure to be fatal to the company. All of the other PC firms, including the original Atari and Commodore (which once actually had a larger market share than either Microsoft or Apple), failed nearly two decades ago and most successful consumer electronics companies are far more diverse than Apple and not nearly as profitable.
Lesson We Can Learn from Steve Jobs
Part of the problem with not having a good plan when an iconic leader like Jobs or Disney leaves is the board not wanting to think about what comes next and the leader believing they are the company. In Jobs' case, however, based on the books on his life, it is also likely that he defines himself by this job and believes that his life will be effectively over if he leaves the job. He went into a massive depression when he was fired from Apple. In all the books, there is no real mention of him having much of a personal life outside his business and immediate family. And, unlike Bill Gates, there is no record of any plan for what he wants to do when he retires.
We should all have an idea of what we want to do next, particularly now when our jobs may not be all that secure -- so that our lives aren't so invested in those jobs that we lose the will to live once we have to move on. It will be critical to Jobs' long-term survival, and our own, that we learn this lesson.
The mess Apple is in at the moment isn't Jobs' fault. It is the fault of the Apple board, who now must find a way to save the company. And they'll have to do it in a panic, when they actually had years to prepare for this. Regardless, I believe the world needs Apple to remind it that passion and design, more than just financial performance, are important, and that if you focus on the former, the latter actually can follow.
I hope Apple survives, but I hope even more that we learn from Apple and Steve Jobs to avoid similar problems and assure our own survival.