Here is an excerpt from an especially insightful article written by Nancy Koehn. It is part of The Washington Post‘s recent On Leadership roundtable exploring Tim Cook’s succession of Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple, and how to follow in the footsteps of an icon. At the conclusion of the excerpt, I provide links to several other outstanding articles. To read all of Koehn’s complete article, please click here.
* * *
At this week’s iPhone 5 launch, we have our first official glimpse into Tim Cook’s leadership style as he takes the stage as Apple’s CEO. Many wonder how Cook will handle running a business handed over by one of greatest leaders and entrepreneurs of our time, Steve Jobs. Jobs is an icon who forever changed the way we connect. However, he was not the first American business leader to exercise tremendous influence over the way people live and think about what is possible. And this is not the first time such a leader has been replaced.
True, Jobs is on a short list of great American entrepreneurs. Along with Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller and Estée Lauder, Jobs has had an exceptional ability to envision what could be: products and services we couldn’t have imagined that we now can’t live without. These leaders all share an intense passion, a driving persistence, a keen sense of strategy and a relentless focus on the details of executing their respective visions. In the 14 years since he returned to the company he helped found, Jobs has embodied all of these attributes (as Apple’s long streak of product homeruns, its $350 billion market capitalization and its powerful brand attest). Given this context, the elephant in the room at the iPhone 5 launch is this: With Jobs gone, can Tim Cook carry the legacy?
Jobs has said he spent a lot of time selecting and developing his executive team. But Apple is not generally known for nurturing talent and giving its smart people the authority and scope to grow on the job. With Jobs’s dogged focus on “what’s next,” as well as his reputation for holding the reins of power tightly, it is reasonable to ask whether he has had the bandwidth (and inclination) to develop a succession plan that could render him obsolete.
But, history offers up several examples of gifted, charismatic (and controlling) founders successfully passing the baton to their successors. Take Thomas J. Watson, Sr., at IBM. By the time his son, Thomas J. Watson, Jr., took over in the 1950s, many of his father’s contributions had been baked into the company culture. Not only did this keep the organization from faltering during transition, it enabled the son to focus on the next stage of important changes as its market and customers evolved. At McDonald’s, Ray Kroc, who did more to create the fast-food company than anyone else, built a team from inside the company that could carry his leadership torch after he was no longer as active in the business.
The most decisive factor in a successful leadership transition—and the reason IBM and McDonald’s stayed strong—is whether the founder or CEO has effectively institutionalized his or her own contributions. Certainly those within Apple well understand Jobs’s values and attributes: his painstaking attention to detail, his boldness of vision and his confidence in understanding what the consumer wants. And as a longtime member of the company’s executive team, Tim Cook (who came to the company in 1998) has seen Jobs’s work ethic, energy and hands-on management style up close.
* * *
Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School and author, most recently, of The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times.
The Who, What, When, How, and Why of U.S. Free Enterprise
Credit Nancy Koehn with skillfully selecting, organizing, and then editing a wealth of material that originally appeared in The New York Times from May 11, 1869 (“East and West,” an account by an unnamed correspondent of the celebration at Promontory Point when the railway first connected New York and California) until September 28, 2008 (“The Richest Man and How He Grew That Way,” Janet Maslin’s review of Alice Schroeder’s biography of Warren Buffett). The material is carefully organized according to three major themes: the corporation, American business and the changing nature of work, and the defining moments in technology. As Koehn suggests, “Taken together, these aspects provide us a kind of wide-angle lens on some – though by no means all – of the most important individuals and events that shaped American business history and that, in turn, did so much to give form to our own time and our possibilities in it.”
I especially appreciate the timelines that are inserted strategically throughout the narrative. They help to create a frame-of-reference for the profiles, as well as analyses of trends and significant events, briefings on historical periods, book reviews, end-of-year summary evaluations, and speeches such as the one delivered by Theodore Roosevelt in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on August 21, 1907, during which he shares his thoughts about the politics of his administration with regard to trusts. He also praises Puritan ancestors who “tamed the wilderness, and built up a free government on the stump-dotted clearings, amidst the primeval forest.” The variety of subjects correctly suggests the scope and depth of what Koehn refers to as “the most important individuals and events that shaped American business history and that, in turn, did so much to give form to our own time and our possibilities in it.”
Most readers will check out the Contents and then select articles of special interest to them. Others may prefer to proceed through one section to the next. Whatever the approach, the reading experience shares much in common with a situation in which a person begins to clear out an attic, cellar, garage or storage area and finds several boxes filled with clippings of articles from The New York Times. Some are about the rise of big business, the emergence of Wall Street, “merger mania,” major business leaders; other articles examine the changing nature of work such as the movement from farm to country and the emergence of labor unions; still others examine the “transportation revolution” (i.e. impact of railroads, the automobile, and commercial flight) and communication breakthroughs such as radio, television, and the Internet. There are at least some photographs a paradigm shift such as one of a Northern Pacific locomotive in 1900 and another in which Henry Ford sits in his car next to a horse and buggy in 1933. However, the bulk of the material consists of narrative text.
The specific entries that caught my eye include (listed in the order in which they appear in the book): “Uncle Sam Now Business World’s Business Man” (November 19, 1882), “Ladies as Stock Speculators” (February 3, 1880), “J.P. Morgan At Seventy, Believes in Keeping At It” (April 14, 1907), “Roosevelt Won’t Drop Trust War” (August 21, 1907), “The Peril Behind the Takeover Boom” (December 29, 1985), “Millionaires of Pittsburg – Twenty Years Ago and Now” (June 2, 1907), “Talking Business with Grove of Intel” (December 23, 1980), “`Neutron Jack’ Exits” (September 9, 2001), “Penned in Factories and No Fire Escapes” (October 12, 1911), he New Boss” (January 30, 2005), “The Wonders of Electricity” (April 4, 1998), “How We Spend Our Time” (April 24, 1937), “Honey, I am Not Home” (May 11, 1997), “Southwest Manages to Keep Its Balance” (September 25, 2001), “Television Effects on Families Shown” (February 5, 1950), and “Mapping Out the Wireless Phone’s Future”( November 12, 1992).
I have included the dates of these entries because many of those who are curious about this book share my interest in articles that reveal what the interests, concerns, issues, etc. were at a given time. Much of what happened a 100 years ago today provided at least some of the “news fit to print” that day so it has an historical significance. In some instances, the same account also suggests a specific stage of development or an emerging trend…or both…as in “Women Who Work Increase in Numbers and Influence” written by R.L. Duffus that appeared in the September 14, 1930, issue and “New Southerner: The Middle-Class Negro” co-authored by Wilma Dykeman an James Stokely that appeared in the August 9, 1959, issue.
* * *
February is Presidents’ month, and in this frame, it’s a fine time to spend a few hours with Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s life and leadership offer rich lessons for managers and indeed all leaders in our own turbulent moment.
Paul Angle’s The Lincoln Reader is a classic in the huge field of writing on the 16th president. But that’s not the most important reason to pick this book up. Open it because it is a great read, comprised of a range of first-hand accounts of Lincoln and narrated in clear, engaging prose. What shines through clearly in these accounts and in Angle’s expert commentary is how Lincoln used the hurdles in his path — failure, loss, confusion, and more — as learning opportunities. They became avenues to deeper insight and confidence in himself and thus important milestones along his leadership journey.
David Donald’s 1995 biography, titled simply Lincoln, is arguably the best single-volume work on the Civil War president in many decades. Donald’s deep knowledge of and care for his subject flow through each page, guiding the reader along the, at times, astounding path that Lincoln walked and examining how his leadership developed during his presidency. Donald’s work is particularly relevant to leaders working in the midst of great uncertainty because he focuses on how Lincoln never lost sight of the larger stage and his own mission as the country’s chief executive on that stage.
In honor of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth last year, the Library of America produced a first-rate anthology of writings about Lincoln. Edited by Harold Holzer, The Lincoln Anthology contains all manner of (concise) observations about Lincoln and his legacy from individuals as varied as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, and Gore Vidal. Their viewpoints are not to be missed, not only because of the diversity of their distinct perspectives on Lincoln’s humanity — how he dressed and spoke and told a joke — but also because the reader comes away from the book with a much clearer sense of a leader’s impact: the shapes this impact takes, its importance in the moment, and its consequences long after a leader finishes his or her work.
* * *
Nancy Koehn is an authority on entrepreneurial history and is the James E. Robison Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, where her research focuses on entrepreneurship and leadership. She is the editor of the book The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times, published by Harvard Business Press in October 2009.