Can Steve Jobs Fall Apart Without Taking Apple With Him?

Steve Jobs announced today that he will be taking a leave of absence from Apple to deal with health issues. COO Tim Cook will be running the Apple ship until Jobs returns, but Jobs stated he will still be involved in “major strategic decisions.”

In December 2009, Jobs announced that his health problems were more complex than originally thought. Nine days before taking leave, he’d claimed to have a treatable hormonal imbalance. Whatever was actually wrong with him required a liver transplant. Six months after the transplant, Jobs returned to Apple.

If you’ll recall even further back, Steve Jobs was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer in October 2003. Although the form of pancreatic cancer Jobs reported isn’t as aggressively fatal as most other types, the 5-year survival rate is less than 50%; about 1/3 of afflicted people survive after 10 years. The odds are against Jobs. Apple has a habit of playing the severity of his affliction(s) down. This pattern started when Apple didn’t tell anyone Jobs had cancer until after he had surgery to remove the tumor.

I can think of two reasons Apple and Jobs are downplaying the seriousness of his illness, which could well be killing him as I write. One, Jobs himself, who in many ways is Apple, is optimistic about his ability to withstand the cancer-induced restructuring of his internal organs. It’s a typical entrepreneurial attitude, transferred to the body. Jobs has overcome all kind of odds before, why shouldn’t he figure out a way to overcome thi?

Secondly, Apple itself lacks a strong succession plan, and is downplaying Jobs’ affliction to protect its vulnerability. Apple is right to do this. According to GigaOm:

The focus on Jobs and his health stems from the fact that Apple is one of the few major corporations whose fortunes are tied so closely to its founder and CEO. Most other companies with a $300-billion market value and revenues in the $25-billion range may have prominent chief executives, but few of them are seen as having so much control over the products their companies produce — and even fewer are as charismatic and widely admired as Jobs. Some have estimated that the stock trades between 10 and 25 percent higher than it otherwise would, based solely on Jobs being the CEO. During the latter part of 2008, after rumors of Jobs’ health began to accelerate, the stock lost more than 50 percent of its value, although several analysts have told Reuters that they don’t believe the latest absence will affect the stock that much.

Succession planning, especially involving the departure of a charismatic CEO, is not Silicon Valley’s forte, according to this CIO article. But the media flurry around Steve Jobs’ health proves that it still does matter, both to investors–Wall Street hates not having Jobs around–and customers. As the CIO article points out, even the most control-freakish CEOs usually have right-hand people to take care of essential company tasks, people who could serve as de facto successors, even if the issue is never discussed openly.

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Frankly, Apple is so robust right now that even if Jobs died without warning, it wouldn’t maim the company enough to threaten its survival. What will it take for Apple to openly announce a succession plan, the way Microsoft did before Bill Gates left? That might be akin to admitting defeat for Jobs, but at some point, it’s in the company’s best interest to smooth the leadership transition.

Written by Drea Knufken

Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.