August 25th was business as usual. Or at least that’s what Apple wanted you to think.
On August 24th, Steve Jobs, one of the most revered and innovative CEOs in recent memory, announced his retirement in a brief letter to the company. No fanfare, no big sendoff; Jobs had slipped out the backdoor before anyone could realize he was gone. The Apple Board of Directors quickly instated COO Tim Cook and acted as if nothing had changed.
Even if no one could predict Jobs resignation or his untimely and tragic passing, the recent release of the iPhone 4S seems almost planned. Despite tech experts expecting a complete overhaul of the iPhone platform, Apple essentially released the same old phone with a few more bells and whistles. Faster? Sure. But fundamentally the phone is the same thing it was 2 weeks ago. It wasn’t an overhaul –it was an update. It’s as if Apple was saying nothing has, or will change, Jobs or no Jobs.
While that may work at most other companies, Apple isn’t most other companies. Jobs built the company’s brand on being cutting edge, on pushing the envelope, on not being business as usual. Though it was clear with Jobs’ resignation, his passing makes it all the more obvious: Apple is currently at a crossroads where it can choose to keep pushing its technology forward or it can try to recreate the company’s heyday under Jobs.
The true test of a CEO’s greatness is not the company’s success under his or her tenure, but rather its success after he or she leaves. As Wednesday reminded us all, every person, even a larger than life one, is human and finite. Certainly, companies can survive off of one man’s accomplishments; but the goal is to thrive, not just survive. To do so requires a continuous flow of strong leaders. A truly great company outlives its greatest leader. True accomplishment is measured not in days, months or years –it is measured in decades and beyond.
None of this is to undermine or take away from what Steve Jobs was able to accomplish over his lifetime. His passion and innovation changed the face of the computer, music, book, and movie industries. He earned his place among the all time greats in business leadership, and the outpouring of sadness over his recent death is a testament to the cultural icon he has become.
But while Steve Jobs is no longer with us, Apple is and the responsibility has now fallen to Cook to lead the company into a new decade of prosperity. Things got off to a rocky start this week with the release of the iPhone 4S, a device that left many asking, “That’s it?” Maybe 2012 –and the expected release of an updated iPad and yet another iPhone- will help Cook, and the company, find their footing once more. Cook is not, nor will he ever be, Steve Jobs. But in truth, he doesn’t have to be. He has taken command of one of the most innovative and respected companies out there, a company that can take a few bumps in the road.
And we all know whom he has to thank for that.