After the death of Steve Jobs in 2011, doomsayers in business journalism began to predict Apple’s imminent downfall. His successor, Tim Cook was also written off initially as an ‘uncharismatic’ and ‘unimaginative’ corporate type. But shortly after he took up the reins at Apple, Cook proved all his critics wrong, leading the company to greater heights and continuing Jobs’ legacy of disruption through innovation. In his latest book, Leander Kahney tells the story of Apple 2.0. An excerpt.
An intensely private and soft- spoken man, Tim Cook never thought he’d be made CEO. And he certainly never thought he’d replace Steve Jobs. He once famously said, “Come on, replace Steve? No. He’s irreplaceable. That’s something people have to get over. I see Steve there with grey hair in his 70s, long after I’m retired.” Of course, that’s not how things worked out.
At the time of his death, Jobs had become modern America’s most lionised CEO. Not only had he saved Apple from certain death in the late 1990s, but he’d transformed the company into a massive hit-making machine. The epoch-defining Mac, iPod, iPhone and iPad had transformed Apple into one of the biggest companies in tech, and certainly the most copied.
Cook had everything to lose. Apple was in danger of losing its leadership position in the marketplace with intense competition from Android, and many thought the company was doomed without its visionary leader. Nobody knew how Cook would act as permanent CEO, since he’d never truly been a public figure.
Cook’s reputation initially worked against him— he was certainly a master of operations, but many thought him to be a colourless, unimaginative drone. He had none of the charisma and driving personality of his former boss, which was what people had grown to expect from Apple’s CEO. Worse, he didn’t have Jobs’s imagination. Where would Apple’s next generation of insanely great products come from? Jobs had been instrumental in making Apple’s products huge successes, and experts in the field were afraid that without him, Apple’s run of hits would come to an end.
Even before Jobs officially stepped down, pundits weren’t afraid to point out that without Steve at the helm, Apple was doomed. It was no exaggeration: “Why Apple Is Doomed” was the title of a May 2011 editorial in the Huffington Post. In it, Ty Fujimura predicted that Apple would never recover from Jobs’s death. His “management, even his vision,” Fujimura wrote, “is replaceable. But that brilliant sense of taste, to which Apple owes their success, will not be matched by the next regime. His death would leave Apple closer to the pack than ever… Without vastly superior products, their arrogant marketing will fall on deaf ears. Consumers will consider alternatives more readily.”
Many others agreed. Jobs was such a singular leader, and Apple’s products so closely tied to him, that imagining Apple without him was next to impossible. George F. Colony, CEO of research and advisory firm Forrester, predicted the company would fail without him. “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.” Apple’s momentum, Colony suggested, would only keep it at the top for two to four more years at the most. “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.”
Cook was not the charismatic leader everyone wanted. He was so unlike Steve Jobs that many analysts, including Colony, drew comparisons with Sony after the departure of its legendary cofounder Akio Morita, Polaroid after Edwin Land, Disney in the 20 years after Walt Disney’s death, and even Apple itself after Jobs’s first departure in the mid-1980s. The history books are full of companies that stumbled after the death or departure of a crucial founder or leader. Both Ford and Walmart had taken similar dips. Apple’s great rival, Microsoft, struggled under the leadership of Steve Ballmer, who took over from the legendary Bill Gates.
Even years later, people continued to doubt that Apple would survive under Cook. “The question of whether Cook can sustain Apple’s momentum comes up more often than just about any other question,” Michael Useem, Wharton management professor and director of the school’s Center for Leadership and Change Management, told Fortune magazine in March 2015, three and a half years after Jobs’s death. So widespread was the gloom that one of the most hyped books in 2014, three years after Jobs’s death, was Haunted Empire, by Wall Street Journal reporter Yukari Kane, which described Apple as a company anguished by the absence of its former leader. One passage read, “Even as he took control of Apple’s sprawling empire, Tim Cook could not escape his boss’s shadow. The question was, how would Cook leave that shadow behind? How could anyone compete with a visionary so brilliant and unforgettable that not even death could make him go away?”
Jobs had a vision for Apple that many were afraid would be lost with Cook at the helm. In a 1985 interview with Playboy magazine—ironically the same year he was booted out of Apple for a decade—he bemoaned that “companies, as they grow to become multi-billion-dollar entities, somehow lose their vision.” At the time of his death, Apple had become a multibillion-dollar company. It was by just about every conceivable metric more successful than it had ever been in its history. But with Jobs as its leader, the vision was still intact. Did Cook have the right insight into and passion for the products, and did he have a vision for the future of Apple?
Those who worked with Cook knew how great a responsibility the former COO was taking on, and some were nervous at first. It was “a daunting challenge,” said Greg Joswiak, Apple’s vice president of worldwide product marketing, who has worked at Apple for more than 30 years—20 years as a colleague of Cook’s. “It was like, you’re riding a bike and it’s not just a bike, it’s a motorcycle, it’s a Harley,” he said, in a personal interview at Apple’s new spaceship HQ on 19 March 2018. “The challenge was significant.”
But if Cook was uneasy about taking on this challenge, it wasn’t apparent, even to his closest colleagues like Joswiak. “The world was nervous,” but “if [Cook] was [nervous], he certainly didn’t show it.” If not for his cool demeanour in the face of this significant challenge, Apple would have been a much more difficult place to work after Jobs’s death. But Apple employees understood how Cook operated, even if the rest of the world did not. “He took a lot of unfair criticism early on… The outside world wanted to compare him to Steve.” But Cook “wasn’t going to try to be Steve,” Joswiak said. “And what a smart thing because no one could be Steve… Instead Tim was Tim. Tim brought the things that he could to the business.”
Like most successful leaders, Cook played to his unique strengths to run the company effectively. In a September 2014 interview with Charlie Rose, he explained that Jobs never expected him to lead Apple in the same way that he had. “He knew, when he chose me, that I wasn’t like him, that I’m not a carbon copy of him,” Cook told Rose. “And so he obviously thought through that deeply, about who he wanted to lead Apple. I have always felt the responsibility of that.” Cook says he desperately wanted to continue Jobs’s legacy and “pour every ounce that I had in myself into the company,” but he never had the objective of being the same as Jobs. “I knew, the only person I can be is the person I am,” he continued. “I’ve tried to be the best Tim Cook I can be.”
And that’s exactly what he’s done.
Excerpted with permission from ‘Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level’, by Leander Kahney, published by Penguin Random House