What Happens After a Legend Leaves?

Posted 08.26.2011

Stevejobs1 There’s been so much written about Steve Jobs stepping down as Apple CEO this week. As an Apple fan and a student of business leaders, it’s hard to disagree with the many, many tribute articles that have sung the praises of Jobs. Anyone who changes multiple industries – computing with the Apple II, Lisa (remember that?) Mac and the iPad, music with iTunes, telecommunications with the iPhone, movies with Pixar – is a genius. When the history of innovation is written, Steve Jobs will be up there with Henry Ford and Walt Disney.

There’s a lot of speculation that Apple will fade without Jobs on the scene. Is it possible, though, that the company might do even better in the future?

Based on a very limited amount of personal experience, I think it might be. Here’s the story.

Last summer, my family had the opportunity to visit the Apple campus in Cupertino, Calif., and have lunch in the cafeteria with a few of the employees. As good as the food was (best corporate cafeteria I’ve ever experienced), the most memorable part was the conversation we had with some of the guys who work at Apple. To a person, they were all petrified of bumping into Steve Jobs on campus. They were literally afraid of talking to him because they didn’t want to say something that might get them fired.

My guess is a lot of the fear was unfounded but the mythology around Jobs and some of the stories they had heard from colleagues (which may have been embellished in the retelling) made it very real. One of the stories they told us was about a colleague who came to work one day wearing his bunny slippers. (It’s a very casual campus.) The guy was on an elevator when the doors opened and Steve Jobs walked in. He thought he might be fired on the spot because of the bunny slippers. They rode together for a couple of floors and Jobs didn’t say a word. The doors opened at Jobs’ floor and he walked off. Without looking over his shoulder, he said to the guy, “Nice shoes.”

Pretty funny story but it and others I’ve read that aren’t so funny make me wonder if more creativity and energy might bloom in Cupertino as people relax a little bit. Among his many gifts, Steve Jobs has had a real talent for picking great talent. Everything that Apple does in the future will flow from the vision and genius of Steve Jobs and the company he created. Perhaps, though,  they’ll do even more in the future as the fear factor fades.

Maybe. Maybe not. What do you think?