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At Apple, decisive is in -- divisive is out

SAN JOSE, CA - OCTOBER 23: Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an Apple special event at the historic California Theater on October 23, 2012 in San Jose, California. Apple is expected to introduce a smaller, less expensive version of the iPad. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

(MoneyWatch) When Steve Jobs was Apple's (AAPL) chief executive, he was able to keep the extensive egos of his management team in check. But once Jobs was gone, tensions began to rise between the company's mobile software chief, Scott Forstall, and some of the other executives. That prompted Forstall to say that there's no longer a "decider" at Apple.

He couldn't have been more wrong about that.

On Monday, chief executive Tim Cook demonstrated just how decisive he can be, ousting Forstall and retail head John Browett in a management shakeup aimed at improving collaboration among the company's key operating functions.

Forstall has played a big role in Apple's incredible comeback story. After coming over in the NeXT acquisition in 1997, he quickly rose through the ranks to become senior vice president of iOS Software. He was smart, talented and perhaps the most Steve Jobs-like executive at the company.

On the flip side, Forstall was well-known for being openly ambitious and defiant. Many of his peers found him difficult to work with. According to the New York Times, his relationship with industrial design head Jonathan Ive had deteriorated to the point where the two couldn't stand to be in the same room.

Unless all the insiders are wrong, news of Forstall's exit seems to have produced a collective sigh of relief within Apple. And that highlights a fascinating issue that often plagues bright, talented, successful people with justifiably large egos. They don't compromise well and, as a result, tend to be on the divisive side.

I've seen divisive executives shoot themselves in the foot time and time again in companies big and small over the years. They never plan to be divisive. It's more of a personal thing. They tend to have such strong beliefs -- and yes, egos -- that instead of stopping and saying, "Maybe this sort of hard-headed attitude isn't doing me or the company any good," they just drive themselves right over the cliff. Sometimes they take the whole company with them.

I watched the chief executive of one company I consulted for more or less revel in pitting his executives against each other. They would endlessly debate every single issue. It paralyzed the management team, kept important decisions from being made and allowed decisions to be reopened once they were made. That dysfunctional behavior ultimately rippled through the entire company -- which, incidentally, is no longer around.

And I've got to be honest with you. When I was an executive, I was probably more on the divisive or disruptive side myself. What can I say? I was far from perfect. But learning from that experience has certainly informed my understanding of the phenomenon in a way that only personal experience can.

Going back to the situation at Apple, it's interesting to note that, in the early days of the company, Steve Jobs' management style was so disruptive and toxic that he was ousted from the company he cofounded. Years later, Jobs called his "very public failure" at Apple "awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it."

Only then, after that extraordinarily painful event, was Jobs able to become a leader capable of galvanizing a diverse group of talented, driven and opinionated executives and inspiring them to work together to achieve great things.

If the characterization of Forstall as being Jobs-like is true, then it certainly seems that he's in the pre-wakeup call phase. If so, then maybe being ousted from Apple will be his "awful tasting medicine." I guess we'll see. In any case, Cook has demonstrated that he's a leader who won't let big egos get in the way of his company's success. More importantly, he's provided an important lesson for all of us.