The Cult of Jobs

Wired has an interesting article about the way Apple is run by Steve Jobs. They assert that Apple ‘got everything right by doing everything wrong’. They discuss how Apple is doing very well commercially, even though the company is run in a way that is counter to a lot of modern management theory. It’s an interesting idea, but there’s one important aspect of the story that I believe they’ve overlooked.

In this story, Apple and Jobs are inseparable. This intertwining is specifically lauded in the article, as Apple’s success is directly attributed to Jobs’ return to the helm in 1997 when Apple was struggling to survive. Jobs is described as a ‘notorious micromanager’, an ‘inveterate stick man’, an autocrat and an asshole. He is also described as having incredible charisma, able to motive employees so that ‘he can make the task of designing a power supply feel like a mission from God’.

Sounds a lot like a cult to me. Charismatic, controlling leader? Check. Incredible secrecy, bordering on paranoia? Check. Incredible devotion from his followers/employees/customers? Check.

The article misses that this is not a new idea. Many other companies have had a single, heroic leader take the company to impressive commercial results. Consider Burroughs Corporation from 1964 through to 1977. The company had a return roughly 6.6 times that of the general market over the period when Ray MacDonald was president of the company. After he left, the company fell to 93% below the market. The company itself was unable to sustain its performance without the presence of this one person. In Good to Great, by Jim Collins, this is just one example of a company that was able to perform extremely well under the guidance of a great leader, only to become mediocre, or worse, without their guiding hand.

I would suggest that Apple may be in a similar position. When Jobs left the first time, the company struggled, and almost came to an end. Now that he has returned, they are doing very well. But Jobs retains such an iron grip on the company that I have to wonder if Apple would be able to do so well without him? Is Apple merely the Cult of Jobs, or is it something more? Will the company be able to survive in a future, post-Jobs era?

Such a day may be a long time off, but it will inevitably come. It will be interesting to see what happens then.

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