Tim Cook is a Great CEO

Perhaps my favorite Steve Jobs keynote moment was one of his last, at the iPad 2 introduction in March 2011. The last demo of the day, just before Jobs introduced the idea that Apple existed at the intersection of technology and liberal arts, was GarageBand for iPad. The demo was truly spectacular, and it clearly moved Jobs:

Even in the moment, it was clear to me this was far more than another Apple keynote demo; music had always been hugely important to Jobs, but more than that, the idea that computing ought to be personal, and ought to be enabling, had been Jobs’ mantra. The iPad, more than any other device, and GarageBand, more than any other software, were the culmination of Jobs’ life work.

I thought I witnessed a similar moment yesterday when Tim Cook formally introduced iOS 7.

The content of these clips is totally different, but to my eye, the emotion is the same. Just as Jobs saw his life’s ambition coming to fruition, so did Cook.

Cook is clearly a different person than Jobs, with different skills, and different motivations. That’s wonderful news for Apple; while a company can reinvent itself around new products and new categories, and continue to thrive,1 I believe culture is the sort of pie that can only be baked once.

I had the good fortune of being an intern at Apple, which gave me the opportunity to spend an hour (along with a few hundred of my closest intern friends) with every member of the leadership team, including Jobs and Ive. Cook was, by a significant margin, the most impressive of all of them.

It’s difficult, in retrospect, to explain why he was so impressive, but I find my struggles eerily similar to the struggles business historians and sociologists have in explaining what company culture is, and why it matters. Tim Cook, at least to my young, rather unjaded eyes, was Apple. He spoke to me – and to every person in the room – as if I were the only person in the world, and that he truly wanted me to understand what made Apple unique. Oh sure, the words were there – he spoke about Apple’s focus, and willingness to say “no,” and about design – but it was the way in which he said it that made you believe. For me anyway, his reality distortion field was far more powerful than Jobs’.

It was obvious that Cook understood Apple, loved Apple, and was clearly the right man to make the decisions necessary to preserve Apple.

Decisions like firing Scott Forstall.

Forstall spoke to the interns as well. It was an incredibly impressive talk, and an incredibly disturbing one. Forstall was clearly the smartest person in the room; what was disturbing was that he obviously knew it, and wanted us all to know it as well.2 When the news broke about his firing, I was totally shocked, yet totally unsurprised.

Still, imagine what guts it took to fire him. Forstall is, more than anyone on the planet – including Jobs – responsible for the iPhone (for this reason alone I found the potshots taken at Forstall, particularly by Craig Federighi, to be in poor taste). He is an incredible engineer – legend has it he could write, or rewrite, nearly any part of the iOS source code on command, and would routinely do so to win disputes in managerial meetings – and a NEXT man, and the closest thing to a Steve Jobs 2.0.

Yet Cook fired him anyway.

Apple didn’t need another Steve Jobs. The price of individual brilliance is collective friction, and only a founder has the cultural capital to make the elevation of the individual possible. After all, he/she created the culture to begin with!

It’s not unlike a revolutionary movement: typically there is the transcendent leader, surrounded by the true believers. Eventually the leader departs, but the revolutions that endure have an ideology that continues to unite. To be sure, over time said ideology ossifies into rules enforced by a bureaucracy, until a new revolution uproots the old one, but this can take many years, even decades.

Most revolutions, though, don’t make it that far. Usually, when the leader departs, his closest lieutenants scheme and fight for the throne, and the entire movement implodes. This was always my fear for Apple: Steve Jobs was the glue that united a strong, stubborn, and talented company that continually operated under high pressure. What would happen when the glue was gone?

Tim Cook has answered that question: the glue is Apple, and the ideology is design. It is a shared belief system that “No” is more important than “Yes,” that focus is essential to making great products, and that no one individual is essential. Not Steve Jobs, and certainly not Scott Forstall.

I don’t know if iOS 7 is going to be a smashing success. I certainly have my opinion, and I’m sure I will share it in due course, although I will give Ive and team the benefit of actually using the product first. However, I am confident that the process of creating iOS 7 was sound, and, more importantly, it was sustainable and accretive to Apple and Apple’s culture.

That is why Cook was so happy. While Jobs’ mission in life was personal computing, and Apple the by-product, Cook’s mission in life is Apple, and iOS 7 was the by-product of his commitment to ensuring that Apple endured.

The job of Apple’s CEO is, first and foremost, to understand what makes Apple, Apple. That is far more important than product sense, or operations excellence, or taste, or a million other attributes thrown around by pundits and analysts. On this criteria, it’s clear that Cook is the right man for the job. I would contend that anyone that says otherwise doesn’t understand revolutions, doesn’t understand culture, and doesn’t understand Apple.

The truth about the greatest commercial of all time – Think Different – is that the intended audience was Apple itself. Jobs took over a demoralized company on the precipice of bankruptcy, and reminded them that they were special, and, that Jobs was special. It was the beginning of a new chapter.

“Designed in California” should absolutely be seen in the same light. This is a commercial for Apple on the occasion of a new chapter; we just get to see it.

This is it.

This is what matters.

The experience of a product.

How it will make someone feel.

Will it make life better?

Does it deserve to exist?

We spend a lot of time on a few great things, until every idea we touch enhances each life it touches.

You may rarely look at it, but you’ll always feel it.

This is our signature, and it means everything.

  1. See IBM for Exhibit A 

  2. I know you will accuse me of judging through the rear view mirror, but I absolutely felt this way at the time