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Who Cares About Steve Jobs? And Why?

The news that Steve Jobs will be taking an unexpected extended medical leave from his position as Apple's CEO is continuing the speculation of whether he'll be able to run the company again and what might happen to Apple as a result. The fascination in the technology world is understandable from one view, as Jobs is one of the personal computer's historic figures and great characters. But from another point, it's an unhealthy obsession and shows that industry maturity has a long way to go.

steveapple.jpgI'm not disputing that Jobs has done a brilliant job in helping position Apple. Nor would I challenge the company's financial success. But a vital aspect of a CEO's responsibility is to create a robust organization that can survive the loss of any one person -- including the CEO. Fail in this and you are one automobile accident, severe illness, or job change away from a business crash. Either Jobs has built an organization over the years that can be innovative and competitive or he hasn't. If the former, people might be sad to see him depart, even if temporarily, but there shouldn't be a major change in how Apple proceeds. If the latter, then the company is vastly overvalued and has needed corrective steps by the board of directors for years.

Some equity analysts, like at Piper Jaffray, expect Apple to continue on successfully, whether Jobs is at the helm or not. Although I've certainly been a critic of a number of things the company has done, I would agree. So what has so many people in a dither? I think there are three reasons:

  • Apple has an enormously strong brand that, for better and worse, users largely identify with Steve Jobs.
  • Jobs has been a charismatic and controversial figure in the industry, and we're a culture addicted to celebrity.
  • To look at the organization and not the individual is to clash with the mythos of the lone genius who can create miracles.
The last one is the biggest problem. If Martha Stewart Omnimedia can transcend the person of the queen of the home scene, then Apple can get past the person aspect of brand. And in a week or two, there will be some new celebrity tidbit to amuse people.

But that high tech myth of the lone trail blazer keeps companies bound to a cult of personality and prevents them from establishing sustainable businesses. In other words, it's not a problem for Apple. It's a problem for all the people who think that a company should be so dependent on any one individual. CEOs in such a position had best get help quickly, because clearly they still have to create the processes and management infrastructure that can actually run the companies, just in case the leaders aren't quite fast enough crossing the street.

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