The System Built by a Special Leader

We all got a bit of upsetting news yesterday. Steve Jobs is taking a medical leave to focus on his health. He has his priorities right. Jobs and Apple have been characteristically quiet on the details, so all any of us are left with is speculation based on incomplete information, which is not very productive. Our hopes and prayers are with Steve and his family, especially in that this is someone who has impacted all of our lives and the world in which we live. Financial markets around the world have him as good as buried, believing that AAPL without Jobs is yet another company. What they may not see is that Jobs is the leader of a system, built with his focused leadership and operated through a network of people committed to the same things. I do not have an insider’s knowledge of Apple, only that of an observer at a distance who admires what he sees.

Jobs has led Apple well by seeing to it that they are clear about who they are, where they’re going, what’s important, and what they’re trying to accomplish. He has assembled a rock star team of executives to extend that leadership throughout the organization. Perhaps by strength of his personality, everyone is enrolled in working for the same things. He is crystal clear about not only what they are doing, but especially about what they are not doing… the very epitome of excellent strategy. Apple is fanatical about the experience it creates for its customers, with an equally strong commitment to Apple coming back. Apple gets more attention for their hardware products than for their software, but in the past 30 years, Apple has been a leader in developing approaches that are now commonly accepted in software engineering. Apple’s processes are disciplined and focused, whether it is in product development or working closely with contract manufacturers to design and build ground-breaking devices. There are robust processes in running the Apple stores, in iTunes, in planning and staging events,… in everything. The system is completed by people throughout the company who know that they are a part of something special, and who energetically work to make sure the system generates ever higher results.

One interpretation of the financial markets’ response to the news about Jobs’ health is that the system will go to pieces if he’s not there to lead it. That’s possible, but I have more faith in Steve. I don’t think he built this organization just as his playground. I think he built it to be the legacy of all who have contributed along its evolution. Think back to the first Mac. Inside the plastic casing was the signature of every person on the team that created it. Apple isn’t about Steve Jobs, despite the fact that his impact is seen throughout the place. He has created a brilliant system, one that is likely to endure without his hands-on participation.

I wouldn’t for a second diminish the power of Jobs’ direct impact, but I see it in the system he has built, not just the products. Let’s all pray for his well-being, but let us also honor him by appreciating all he has accomplished.