Blog Master Note: Please note that Jon Callas refers to Steve Jobs as SJ throughout this post. This is how Steve Jobs was referred to by those inside Apple.
I was out to dinner when the news came in last night that SJ died. It was a shock, but not a surprise. I expected him to give up Apple, literally, on his deathbed. I hope he had some time to relax. I hope he didn’t suffer.
Already, the stories are starting again about how hard it’s going to be for Apple without him, and second-guessing the rest of the company. I disagree with the dire pronouncements. Now of course, it’s hard for any company to maintain its edge for a long period of time — with or without a strong, visionary leader. Let’s not forget that it’s only been five or six years that papers stopped saying the epithet “beleaguered Apple” the way that Homer said “grey-eyed Athena.” SJ himself talked about how moments are fleeting and every day a gift. Brushes with death sharpen the mind.
There are two things that a good CEO does. They hire good people to work for them, and they create a good organizational culture. The difference between a chef and a cook is that a chef creates a culture by which the restaurant works without them being present. It’s not the food, it’s the culture. Similarly, a good theatrical director creates an environment so that the play is the thing night after night without the director in the audience. That’s also culture.
SJ was more than a mere CEO, he was a high-tech impresario. Every presentation you’ve ever seen an Apple person — from SJ himself to Tim Cook, to the other Apple people who present (like me, when I was employed there) — is the result of rehearsal, pointed feedback and more rehearsals. Even the jokes are rehearsed. Unlike most company road shows, an Apple presentation is a performance. And that is, also, culture.
The culture that Apple has now runs an emulation of SJ’s taste, his ruthless criticism and his vision in the organization itself. If you doubt that for a moment, look back to when he took a sabbatical for his liver transplant. When he returned, Apple released the iPad. Think about that; the year Apple first did without Steve was the year that iPad was finally done. Yeah, yeah, he kibitzed from the sidelines. You would too. But he had something important to do, healing. Nonetheless, the iPad was the rehearsal for life without Steve.
That organization, that culture has been preparing for life without him since 2004, when his first diagnosis of cancer came in. Here’s what SJ said in 2005:
Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Anyone who thinks that Apple hasn’t been preparing for the inevitable, for the necessity that the kitchen would have to run without him, that the play must go on without the director, doesn’t understand or hasn’t been paying attention. Yeah, sure, eventually Apple will lose its edge. The old is always cleared out for the new. But that would happen eventually anyway. Sic transit gloria mundi, and all that.
When I would drove into work, from time to time, a car would be in front of me with the license plate WWSJD. There are two things a good CEO does: hire good people and create good culture. SJ knew that as much as he knew anything.