Can We Quit Comparing Tim Cook to Steve Jobs?

In a few days, it’ll be five years since Steve Jobs stepped down and Apple’s board named Tim Cook as the tech giant’s new chief executive officer.

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You’d never know it from the media coverage.

If you Google “Tim Cook and Steve Jobs,” you get 650,000 results, mostly head-to-head comparisons between the two Apple CEOs. Viewpoints range from pundits who think the tech giant has lost its mojo since Jobs resigned to those who see Cook as a bold and worthy successor … and everything in between. 

Media obsession with the topic isn’t all about sensational headlines, eyeballs and advertising revenues. There is genuine interest among entrepreneurs, techies and leadership experts, not to mention Apple fanboys. Unfortunately, it’ll do them about as much good as donning black mock turtlenecks and calling themselves “Steve.”

While comparisons were inevitable, their dogged persistence is all the more impressive when you consider just how remarkably useless they are. Debating who the better CEO is amounts to little more than a futile exercise that has absolutely no relevance to anything that matters to Apple, its many stakeholders or anyone else, for that matter.

Not to be annoyingly dogmatic about it, but as a practical matter, this particular CEO comparison is even more academic than others. Jobs is long gone, Cook is the boss, and that, as they say, is that. More important, there’s no place for speculative nonsense among Apple’s design, operations or executive teams. It’s all about the business of making great products customers love.  

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Jobs knew that, for Apple to succeed without him, Cook and company would have to avoid the trap of “What would Steve do?” Besides the distraction, I’m sure he knew that chronic second-guessing of executive decisions could prove corrosive to the company’s razor-like focus on product execution, not to mention the cohesion of its cult-like culture.

As with everything, Jobs took on the task of creating his legacy in his own way. As Cook has said in recent interviews

He created Apple University as a way for up-and-comers to examine the philosophies, values and decision-making process that built the world’s most powerful technology brand. The goal was not to create an army of Jobs clones, but to replicate and scale a unique company culture that, for lack of a more original term, thinks different

And although Jobs was a card-carrying control freak by nature, he avoided that behavior to ensure that the Cupertino-based company would thrive without him. One example of that is Apple’s relatively flat hierarchy and distinct lack of top-down processes, especially for a company of its size.

Decisions made in Apple’s Monday executive meetings propagate organically through the organization, from executive to director, director to manager and manager to team. Status updates follow the reverse path back up the chain.  

As his successor, Jobs may have chosen his ultimate disciple, but Cook is by no means a mini-Steve. Rather, he’s committed to a set of principles and values that made Apple what it is. But from a leadership standpoint, he is his own man with his own distinct style, his own unique talents and his own way of doing things. The same is true of Jony Ive, Eddy Cue and the rest of the executive team.    

Jobs didn’t become an iconic CEO by trying to be like anyone else. He didn’t develop an uncanny ability to discern what people wanted even before they knew it themselves by following how others do things. He did it by becoming the best version of himself. He did it by following his own instincts. He did it by being the genuine Steve.

Not only was Jobs inimitable, he was also highly adaptable. And he knew that, for Apple to continue its remarkable track record of innovation and execution, it would need a successor, a leadership team and a culture that is equally inimitable and adaptable. After all, you can’t lead in a fast-changing world if you’re stuck in your ways. 

You can’t copy and paste a leader, no matter how talented and visionary he was. It simply doesn’t work that way. As a practical matter, Jobs’ legacy is the culture he built and the principles he instilled in Cook and his fellow executives. It’s up to them to honor that legacy – not by trying to be like Steve – but by being their own genuine selves.