Apple CEO Steve Jobs has taken another medical leave of absence, and that absence is certain to rattle the company’s staff, shareholders and observers. While the implications for Apple are noteworthy, the Steve Jobs saga raises the broader issue of leadership and the leader’s communications responsibilities.
Jobs always has chosen to deliver news personally about the company’s groundbreaking products. As a result of his engineering talent and his straight-from-the-boss communications style, he rapidly became an icon among Apple enthusiasts. He emerged as the Thomas Edison or Henry Ford of the digital technology era.
Like these predecessors, Jobs became the voice, face and foundation of his company, a trifecta that works well—until God laughs. What would have happened if Ford or Edison has been compelled to take a leave of absence at their creative and business peaks? Ford had a family to carry on the name and the legend in the minds of the public and investors. Edison’s electric companies eventually combined into General Electric, a self-sustaining behemoth, and Edison himself was able to move on to perfecting the phonograph and movies.
Apple, however, remains a company that, in the public mind, is inspired and driven by a leader of oversized capacities. Pull that type of leader out of the picture and quakes can fracture a company’s future landscape. It wasn’t until Jobs’ return to Apple in 1997 after a 12-year absence that the nearly bankrupt company regained its soaring future.
With globalization and the emergence of near-instantaneous competitors, today’s businesses are too tenuous to depend on the image of a single leader, however brilliant and beneficent. While working frantically to build and gain market loyalty for their businesses, entrepreneurial leaders must realize their responsibility to the sustenance and growth of the entity each has created.
With this realization, vision becomes the most important aspect of business leadership and communications. Jobs certainly held a personal vision for his company, but he has largely kept it hidden away until the next big reveal. No one anticipated iTunes or iPhone or the iPad until they were announced. They anticipated only that every year Steve Jobs would announce the next great thing. The natural question in the marketplace thus becomes, without him, will we see more great things from Apple?
Perhaps, then, one of the most important impacts of Jobs’ latest leave is that entrepreneurs will think a bit more strategically about the future of their own organizations and begin communicating their vision more effectively. From Henry Ford’s idea for “a car for the great multitude” to Bill Gates’ determination to see “a computer on every desk and in every home,” entrepreneurs with unambiguous vision have built great companies. By building a simple but powerful vision statement—a specific, long-range portrait of the company’s desired impact on the way we work, live or play—the next generation of technology entrepreneurs can themselves become great.