30th April 2012
The sentiment "Steve Jobs was Apple and Apple was Steve Jobs" is by now a well-aired and well-worn one, recognisable by those with even very little knowledge of the world's most valuable company.
Implicit in that is the idea that Apple is nothing without its high-profile charismatic and forthright late leader and that a declining future awaits.
Now one of the tech industry's more prominent observers is publicly adding his voice to the throng of post-Jobs fatalists.
Is Apple the new Sony? George Colony, CEO of Forrester Research seems to think so. And he chose the day Apple announced an almost 100 per cent rise in net profit for the second quarter of $11.6 billion to share his opinion, via the Forrester Blog.
"Apple's momentum will carry it for 24-48 months. But without the arrival of a new charismatic leader it will move from being a great company to being a good company, with a commensurate step down in revenue growth and product innovation. Like Sony (post Morita), Polaroid (post Land), Apple circa 1985 (post Jobs), and Disney (in the 20 years post Walt Disney), Apple will coast, and then decelerate."
Invoking the work of social theory pioneer Max Weber, Colony lays out three types of organisation with examples: Legal/bureaucratic (IBM or the U.S. government); Traditional (the Catholic Church) and Charismatic ("run by special magical individuals") i.e., Apple by Jobs.
He goes on: "When Steve Jobs departed, he took three things with him: 1) singular charismatic leadership that bound the company together and elicited extraordinary performance from its people; 2) the ability to take big risks, and 3) an unparalleled ability to envision and design products."
Whatever the degree of certainty Colony speaks with, his observations do throw up some timely questions about who and what our corporations should personify.
In the age of the networked company and networked investor can we – or should we – still be endorsing the corporate cult of personality?
In an era of near financial meltdowns, "too big to fail" banks, global ‘Occupy' movements and disgraced Masters of the Universe, is charisma still enough to steer companies to its financial nirvana or indeed nadir?
Should an outstanding share price and a certain level of product innovation continue to justify the presence of bullying autocratic demagogues at the helm?
And at a time when we have a burgeoning social media infrastructure built for collaboration of all kinds (across space and time if need be), should we not be emphasising the corporate organisation as a space for individuals to potentially yield levels of productivity that far outweigh the sum of its parts?
Mindful Money blogger Ken Eisold, a corporate psychoanalyst and organisational consultant hints at the dangers of fetishising the leader at the expense of the organisational whole, reminding us that Jobs was initially fired from Apple "for being a poor manager" before his return, by which time "he found a second in command who was good at just those things he wasn't. And he also learned a lot about listening to others."
It's perfectly possible that leaders themselves never lose a sense of their own fallibility, however good or bad they turn out to be – but that the system built around them either forbids them to display it, or incentivises them not to.
And while the buying public – customers and investors alike – remains happy with the product, perhaps they see no reason to challenge the received corporate narrative and the leader's role within it.
"The point is about us, and our susceptibility to hero worship," Eisold notes. "It's about how hard it is for investors to think straight and keep in touch with reality."
The last word on this has to go to the late Steve Jobs himself, from an interview in 2008 from the renowned CBS News current affairs show 60 Minutes:
"My model for business is The Beatles: They were four guys that kept each other's negative tendencies in check; they balanced each other. And the total was greater than the sum of the parts. Great things in business are never done by one person, they are done by a team of people."
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