The Leader or The System?

The May 23 issue of Fortune magazine is the annual Fortune 500 edition. The lists are predictably boring, but the feature story on Apple is riveting. The picture is created from too many unattributed sources, so we can only interpret how accurate the picture may be. But our direct observations lend credibility to the story. And the story is what we suspected, or feared, or admire: Steve Jobs is the story. Financial analysts are positively ghoulish in their anticipation of Jobs’ departure or demise. Corporations are going concerns that are intended to endure beyond their leaders. But leaders matter, and the imprints on their organizations are indelible. The impact of Jobs’ leadership has been a globally cultural phenomenon, as much or more as any CEO you can cite. The Fortune story says his impact on Apple as an organization is what we suspected, or feared, or admire: Steve Jobs is Apple.

I don’t want to diminish the commitment and contribution of a corporate population of extremely talented people, but the Fortune story puts Jobs’ fingerprints on everything. Not just the context and culture of the organization. I mean everything, from product design to food service, architecture to transportation. What remains unclear is the opening that exists for many in the organization to contribute their imagination along with their effort. Beyond fulfilling their need for affiliation with a history-making company, what’s in it for them? Why should they follow Steve Jobs and do what he, and apparently only he, wants?

For that matter, why do we follow any leader? Here’s my take.

People follow a leader when they are enrolled in the mission, vision, and values of an organization. They believe in what the organization’s all about, its core context. And they also follow courageous leaders in time of crisis, whether it’s a crisis created by declaration or by hitting a brick wall. In these instances, it’s all about the leader. Absent the crisis, the core context still matters, but people are committed to follow their leader when the leader is committed to enabling the people to systematically achieve ever higher levels of success (as defined by the context), both organizationally and personally. What results is systemic innovation from the gifts of all its people, and consequently a much higher prospect of sustainability. Despite the leader’s impact, it’s all about the people.

The day will certainly arrive when Apple operates without Steve’s hand on the wheel. I hope that day is the distant future. For all he has meant to Apple, to his family, to Apple’s people, and to all of us, I believe that he leaves a legacy greater than products, a system that continues its history by setting cultural paths for the world.

What’s your take: will Apple without Jobs diminish to mediocrity, or will Apple continue to flourish?