Your Autonomous Leader Steps Down. Now What?

On August 24, 2011, Steve Jobs stepped down from his role of CEO at Apple. Perhaps this wasn’t unexpected. He took a leave of absence before; once from January 2009-June 2009 and then again in January 2011. Both times, discussions cropped up about how Apple will do without him… and the debate continues this week.

Most of the words used to describe Jobs by those who know him give us the impression of an autonomous leader: charismatic, visionary, ambitious, magician, tyrannical. No wonder people are talking about what will happen without him in charge. As they say, if you remove a spider’s leg or head, it becomes crippled or dies, but a starfish can regenerate. And Apple was as close to a centralized spider-like organization as they come. In an HBR article, Alex Goldfayn predicts such crippling will transcend the organization and goes as far as to say, “the entire consumer electronics industry will soon suffer as a result.”

But on the other hand, it seems that his vision was so strong and so widely understood, that it will go on. Perhaps it has influenced Apple’s organizational culture. Organizational culture includes everything from simple things like office design and shared values to ingrained assumptions and highly similar ways of responding to complex events. It might even be appropriate to say Steve Jobs created Apple’s culture. Usually an organization’s founders are the ones who set the tone for the organization, modeling values and hiring and promoting people who share those values.  “Job’s vision is so clear and buried so deep within Apple’s culture that anyone in Cupertino who dares put out an ugly product or go after the ‘lower price’ would be reprimanded in the worst way,” writes Cisco Cheng.

And if all else fails, Jobs is staying on as chairman of the board. The board has named Tim Cook, the former COO, as the replacement. According to the PR letter, “as COO, Cook was previously responsible for all of the company’s worldwide sales and operations, including end-to-end management of Apple’s supply chain, sales activities, and service and support in all markets and countries.” He has also been running the company since Steve’s latest leave of absence in January.  Sascha Segan makes a good point: “if you think Tim Cook isn’t e-mailing him daily about every design project the company is working on, I think you’re mistaken.”

What do you see happening to Apple in the future?

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