For the famously work-focussed CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, to take leave on health grounds, especially in the context of his previous medical problems, suggests a serious situation.
However, we should not write him off yet. The man has already survived two near-death experiences – one metaphorical, one far more literal. The latter is the more recent: his recovery after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and subsequent liver transplant, astonished many and gave hope to other sufferers. At one point, he had actually read his own obituary, which had been published by mistake but which was readily believed.
Almost as remarkable was his business comeback in 1997 – although in some ways his story is a familiar one.
A college drop-out, he became one of the first of the new generation of young computer millionaires in the 1970s, co-founding Apple. Still in his 20s, he felt too young and inexperienced to manage his rapidly expanding empire, so he head-hunted a senior executive from Pepsi to serve as CEO. The new management turned Apple into a Pepsi-style corporation – in which there was no room for a loose cannon innovator like Mr Jobs himself. The fact that the company owed everything to him meant nothing in the board room battle that followed. Lacking his CEO’s familiarity with the dark arts of corporate warfare, Jobs was forced out of his own company.
He was soon missed. The vision and enterprise that had made Apple such a success left with the founder. Old-fashioned corporate executives are singularly ill-equipped to cope with the ever-changing IT sector, which puts a premium on constant innovation and long-term vision. Microsoft was left as the computer giant in the strongest position to exploit the Internet Revolution (something MS rather bungled) just as it was really getting started. Apple was sustained only by extraordinary brand loyalty built up under Jobs.
However, Jobs himself was not idle. A successful stint as CEO of Pixar, where his willingness to let original thinkers do things their own way generated a string of artistic and commercial triumphs, led to a seat on the main board of Disney. Meanwhile, he also founded another computer company, which eventually sold out to Apple – bringing him back to the main board of his old company.
By this time, Jobs had himself become an experienced executive and master of the dark arts – which he perfected dealing with Michael Eisner at Disney. The year after his return to Apple, the existing CEO was removed in another board room coup, but this time Jobs himself took the post, which he has held ever since. Almost immediately, Apple returned to profitability. The last decade – which has seen Microsoft under constant pressure – has seen a series of successful Apple product launches, most notably the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad.
The moral of the story is that, no matter how big a successful new business becomes, even when it needs more professional management, there is no substitute for the enterprise and vision of its founder. Get well soon, Steve.