01.15.09

Steve Jobs' Messiah Complex

The secrecy surrounding Jobs' health problems is the latest sign that he fails to grasp that his company belongs to its shareholders.

With the revelation about Steve Jobs’ worsening health, business pundits are immediately defaulting to the standard conclusion that Apple management mishandled the affair. Maybe, but this cliché assumes an insidious, monolithic corporate conspiracy, and doesn’t account for rapidly shifting variables and conflicting agendas that better explain how Apple got here.

As anyone who has confronted a medical crisis in their families or personal lives can attest, human health can change quickly and savagely. As I learned when I lost my mother at a young age to ovarian cancer, a favorable test result and sense of well-being one day can be followed by sudden disaster the next. The folks at Apple would have us believe that this is the case with Steve Jobs. At the moment, we don’t know.

What I do know is that when personal tragedy collides with strategic challenges, deeply human impulses can overwhelm cold calculations. Perhaps this shouldn’t be the way things go, but life doesn’t click by in PowerPoint.

I’ve encountered my share of messianic CEOs who never come to see the company they run as being public; they see the company as being theirs.

To analyze the Apple crisis beyond the simple chestnut of mismanagement, it’s important to recognize that a corporation in crisis isn’t a united corporation at all, but a loose collection of individuals seeking self-preservation. The most powerful agenda, of course, is that of the chief executive. I’ve encountered my share of messianic CEOs who never come to see the company they run as being public; they see the company as being theirs. Accordingly, they tend to conclude that they can make critical decisions at their discretion, not the marketplaces’. With the Jobs affair, this is as reasonable a hypothesis as any.

The Jobs controversy validates all of the conspiracy theories that have been swirling around for months, namely that Jobs and Apple have been engaging in legerdemain all along. In a climate where the media are rightly self-flagellating about having been asleep at the switch as the U.S. and global economies collapsed, this presents rotten timing for Apple. Indeed, the public relations angel that delivered unto Apple an unbroken locomotive of sycophantic coverage may prove to be the serpent that corrupts its corporate body.

Individuals and companies that grow accustomed to journalistic valentines necessarily come to the mistaken conclusion that the media like them. Wrong. The media are retailers, and what they really like is the shtick you’re wholesaling. A feisty, Steve Jobs gee-whizzing in his black turtleneck about his latest gizmo is catnip. An emaciated Steve Jobs jiving from an underground lair about his health is quicksand. After all, in crises like these, it is not necessarily guilt that convicts; it’s suspense, that interminable march to denouement.

If, in fact, Jobs’ true medical condition was not known until recently, Apple still had other options. The Microsoft transition model is a case in point. Like Jobs, Bill Gates was very much associated with Microsoft. However, Gates gradually introduced his successor, Steve Ballmer, to the marketplace. Jobs did no such thing. While it’s possible that he had not yet settled upon a suitable successor, the odds are that his messianic sense of self would not allow that process to be set in motion.

In the long-term, Apple will probably be fine with or without its icon-in-chief. But, at the moment, the company will have to navigate the what-did-they-know-and-when-did-they-know-it viper pit where distrust of corporate flackery is understandably at hysterical levels.

It’s time for Apple’s board to stop worshipping at Jobs’ altar and force a discussion about transition. This doesn’t require draconian actions such as Jobs’ resignation, just some pathway out of Apple’s increasingly dangerous Eden. Just as Jobs may see Apple as his company, the paradox of his success is that he has convinced shareholders and millions of consumers that Apple is our company.

When a company lives by the icon, it can, at the very least, impale itself on the icon. It may not be deft crisis management, but it is very human.

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Eric Dezenhall co-founded the high-stakes communications firm Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., and serves as its CEO. Eric's first book, Nail 'em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business, pioneered techniques for understanding and defusing crises.