Visionary Sustainability

Steve Jobs, Apple’s Founder and Legendary Innovator, announced he would resign from his CEO post several weeks ago.  Jobs co-founded Apple in 1976.  Many people would consider Jobs a visionary leader. Tim Cook, who had been Apple’s chief operating officer, was named acting CEO.

Cook is quite familiar with this position. Since January, Cook has been acting CEO due to Jobs’ medical leave.  Jobs’ absence for the company could mean more financial trouble for Apple.  To shareholders and investors, it’s déjà all over again.  Jobs has been battling a series of illnesses (i.e. battling cancer, a liver transplant, etc.) that have forced him to take medical leave three times in seven years. 

A good vision, clearly communicated, can propel an organization into high performance. In fact, a well constructed vision has several advantages, including (a) it captures senior executives own views about the long-term direction of the organization, (b) it reduces the risk of careless decision making by managers at all levels, (c) it builds support from employees at all levels and help convey a shared vision, and (d) it helps an organization prepare for the future. 

John Gamble and Arthur Thompson, authors of Essentials of Strategic Management, argue the staying power of a good vision: “An engaging and convincing strategic vision has enormous motivational value – for the same reason that a stone mason is inspired by building a great cathedral for the ages.”

Who will be the next master mason for Apple?  Jobs had to come out of retirement in 1997 (a 12 year hiatus) before to rescue the struggling company. With Jobs at the helm, Apple began making its creative presences heard with iPhones, iPads, and iPads.  

In fact, what separated Jobs from the rest of the CEO pact was his keen strategic mind and vision. Columnist Margaret Heffernan noted the shear persona of  visionary leadership: “It was because, at the beginning of the century, Jobs had put in place a product plan aimed at one great external future event: the moment that broadband penetration in the U.S. exceeded 50%. Once that occurred, digital entertainment became technically and commercially feasible.”  Many will predict the demise of Apple once Jobs is finally gone. 

Why? Steve Jobs is Apple.  Cross Research analyst Shannon Cross observed about Jobs’ impact on Apple, “Steve Jobs put in place at Apple a culture of innovation.”  Yet, many organizations will find themselves in a similar situation when their visionary founder is no longer a part of the organization.

How does an organization sustain a solid vision when the founding or inspirational figure is no longer communicating that vision to the organization?

© 2011 by Daryl D. Green                                    


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29 thoughts on “Visionary Sustainability

  1. The organizations corporate vision should be determined by the corporation and lead by the CEO not vice versa. To say Steve Jobs is the essence of Apple is quite a disastrous comment to the shareholders that are expecting returns long after his succession. Needless to say, Steve Jobs relinquished his unanimous control to Apple when he incorporated. As such, the Board of Directors assumed responsibility of succession planning and the effectiveness of it being carried out. Essentially the process should never end, future CEO’s should be groomed to be able to replace the incumbent should the necessity arise. Steve Miles gave a great example of a “company’s young and popular CEO of Exxon, Tony Hayward; The Deepwater Horizon disaster — and Hayward’s flippant response to that disaster leading to his unexpected replacing”.

    Miles goes on to say “boards often make the mistake of delegating the task of succession planning completely to the CEO. As good of a leader as the CEO might be, that does not mean he or she is best positioned to choose a successor…They are quite likely biased by their own style and experiences. They may prefer a successor who will solidify their legacy…”

    Miles, S. A. (2011). Why So Many Companies Fail at CEO Succession Planning. BusinessWeek.com, 5. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

    • Hi Phil,
      Excellent! You came out of the gate with fire and controversy: “To say Steve Jobs is the essence of Apple is quite a disastrous comment to the shareholders that are expecting returns long after his succession.”

      In my own personal experience, I’ve seen a lot of weak boards that depend on the CEO for this vision. Of course, it shouldn’t be the case. But—let’s don’t pick on corporate America. You see the same thing in sports. Let’s look at the University of Alabama’s high profile football team. Many people would argue that Nick Saban is the vision for the football program, not the AD.

      How do you deal with weak boards for sustainability?

    • I completely agree with Phil in this discussion. I do think that Steve Jobs is an extremely important part and history of Apple, but to stand and say that having him is essential to the success of the company isn’t right. The board as well as company management should be able to continue his legacy.

      To answer the question of “how do you deal with weak boards for sustainability” is a complex process. If the CEO and management were operating how they should have been, then the continuation of the practices of Steve Jobs shouldn’t be a problem – there should be a clearly drawn out strategic plan for how the company should operate. I’m sure Apple has many policies, ideas, and visions set in motion already to keep the people on track. Like we have learned in this short time, is that must be a good strategy set in place in order for a company to succeed. If this strategy was specific and well drawn out, regardless if the board is weak or not, the activities and goals should still continue to be carried out. Thompson and Gamble tell us that a strategic vision is supposed to describe where the company is going, and help steer everyone in the company in a common direction. I honestly think that if the Apple has a strong strategic vision in place (which the honestly must), then they will survive this change.

      Like you stated previously, the board shouldn’t rely on the CEO to carry out and come up with the company vision, but it does sadly happen. I think the key for Apple’s continued success would be to continue with the strategic plan that they have been going with while Steve Jobs was there. Continue the innovation and creativity, and the company will grow!

  2. While a vision may be clouded to those other than the visionary, it can be conveyed to help others see into the future with the visionary. John Gamble and Arthur Thompson (2011) state, “For a strategic vision to function as a valuable managerial tool, it must provide understanding of what management wants its business to look like and provide managers with a reference point in making strategic decisions” (p. 18). The managers should keep using the vision, the managerial tool, long after the founding visionary is gone.

    In cases like Apple, the company is looking to the people that were closest to Jobs in mindset and vision to carry the torch into the future. Sometimes this philosophy works, and sometimes it does not work. The success of continuing the vision depends on how well Jobs was able to convey his vision to those around him. His managers must then be able to share that vision in the same way with new workers. Jobs’ vision must become a culture, a corporate philosophy if you will, to continue the vision. While he truly revolutionized the field of digital technology, Apple must find someone to take his place. I am afraid we may never see a unique individual with Jobs’ truly remarkable foresight and leadership again in the technology industry for quite some time.

    Gamble, J. E., & Thompson, A. A. (2011). Essentials of strategic management: The quest for competitive advantage. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

    • Hi Chris,

      Excellent analysis of the issue: “In cases like Apple, the company is looking to the people that were closest to Jobs in mindset and vision to carry the torch into the future. Sometimes this philosophy works, and sometimes it does not work.”

      This problem isn’t easy to solve!

      Professor Green

    • I agree with you that the people who are replacing Jobs should be in a position where they understand his vision. They need to continue that vision to keep Apple on top of the market.
      In addition to what Chris said, for a strategic vision to function as a valuable managerial tool, “it must say something definitive about how the company’s leaders intend to position the company beyond where it is today” (Gamble and Thompson Jr. 2011). This is what Tim Cook and the others now running Apple need to think about. Where is the business now, and where do I want to take it? How can I keep the vision of Steve Jobs continually integrated in this company? Steve Jobs was always thinking about what could be. Using those thoughts, he made the products that Apple had today. The company needs to think beyond where it is today.

      Gamble, J., & Thompson, A. (2011). Essentials of Strategic Management. The Quest for Competitive Advantage. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

  3. Sustaining a solid vision rest squarely in the hands of the board of directors. The board must take steps to ensure that the vision is more than a statement found in the annual earnings report but a part of the threads of communication and directions that moves the organization on a daily basis. A single person may be the source of the vision but it is incumbent upon management to weave the vision into the culture and to make adjustments as goods and services are produced and rendered by the organization. When the vision is a product of an internal visioneering process in which management builds an agreed upon future state that fits the goals of the overall purpose of the enterprise the board is still left with the responsibility of communicating the shared vision and allocating resources accordingly. Top down or bottom up. Leadership must sustain the vision. Job one.

  4. I feel that Steve Jobs is not a typical CEO. He is a visionary with a perspective on technology that not many people have or could even dream of cultivating within themselves. He was instrumental in bringing Apple to where it is today since his coming out of retirement in 1997. Jobs leaving Apple, while it could have financial implications, I don’t think it will be the company’s downfall. Jobs has been sick for some time now, with a disease that not many people survive for as long has Jobs has. Tim Cook has been standing in for Jobs for quite some time now and investors are very comfortable with him at the helm of Apple. He may not be the technological and aesthetic driver tat Jobs is, but Apple has the ability and president set to build that strength from within it’s ranks. Jobs has had a hand in training these people and the culture is very strong at Apple. Apple has done a good job of succession planning with Cook. They gave the public and investors ample time to digest the news that Jobs was leaving and also gave a good background and time for Cook to prove himself as a CEO worthy of running Apple.

  5. Vision is developed collectively by a company’s leadership taking into account the measures that will lead to success. “A distinctive element of the process of conveying and maintaining vision is that it is more collegial or group-oriented than other planning processes, which are more leader-oriented or hierarchical” (Quigley, 1). Once an appealing vision is developed, it is the leader’s responsibility to make it a realization. Still, a successful corporation must be able to properly select or replace at any given time the leader that will accomplish this task. If an inspiring or visionary leader is lost, it is the board or director’s responsibility to select a successor who will continue to move the corporation towards the accomplishment of the corporate vision.

    Quigley, J. (1994). Vision: how leaders develop it, share it, and sustain it – includes related articles. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1038/is_n5_v37/ai_15859244/

  6. Steve Jobs is a unique person and nobody can do anything like him. Just as no one can do things exactly as we do. To say that Steve Jobs is Apple is a generalized way to demonstrate everything he has managed to develop the company and create its culture of innovation. Steve Jobs states “Apple’s core. Apple’s core value, we believe that people with passion can change the world”. He embraced his ideas and did the necessary to put them into practice, which motivated several employees with his visions.
    However, we cannot forget that Jobs is one of the “pieces” than what is Apple and behind him several others have helped make Apple what it is today. There isn’t a good leader without his followers, followers who believe and are willing to follow him. According to John Gamble and Arthur Thompson (2011) “An engaging and convincing strategic vision has enormous motivational value” (p. 21). For Apple to continue his legacy or any other company who will go through this, it is necessary that the Board of Directors and managers continue to spread the vision of the company internally and show that they are confident about the future. Managers need to make sure employees understand “where they are going”.

    Gamble, J. E., & Thompson, A. A. (2011). Essentials of strategic management: The quest for competitive advantage. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

  7. A vision is a vital part to any organization, but if the vision of the organization leaves, because the original visionary has left, then it wasn’t a strong, long term vision. As it states in the article, a vision needs to plan for long term success. If Apple’s vision from jobs continues from where he left off, then the company should be able to continue to do well. Even if Cook will be the new CEO, the company is still acting off the original vision from jobs, and if they are wise, they probably shouldn’t deviate from that vision.

  8. Memo to ‘alpha’ company leaders: If you want to leave a lasting monument, better be more beta-like.
    An organization ‘s vision that has been powerful enough to drive a company for a number of years should not change just because the leader changes. A good vision lives on and on. Dawn Levy of Stanford News Service says ,”Enduring companies have something in them that outlasts any leader, proceeding to draw a contrast between what he called “time-tellers” and “clock-builders.” (Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Professoe Porras and coauthor Jim Collins, Harvard University) The former are the charismatic leaders, who build their companies around themselves. By dint of their advertising or engineering skills, selling prowess or general brilliance, time-tellers are looked to by subordinates for every major decision. When they leave, time-tellers leave a crater where the CEO’s leather chair used to be. Clock-builders, on the other hand, are “betas” who quietly go about building the organizational systems that will ensure the company’s continuity long after their passing ¬ they won’t have to be there for people to know what time it is.”
    6/11/01
    Dawn Levy, Stanford News Service,http://news.stanford.edu/pr/01/beta613.html

  9. CEO turnover is inevitable, and most companies have procedures and grooming measures in place to ensure a relatively seamless transition. Linowes discusses in his article “Leadership in Transition: Preparing Your Firm for Your Successor” the importance of grooming senior people and project managers by teaching them tactics and strategies that will differentiate firms from their competitors. This also establishes a shared vision by upper management, allowing transitions between team members to be less disruptive.

    In the case of Steve Jobs, he will be assuming the role of Board Chairman and will essentially remain intimately involved in the company for the immediate future. This transition mirrors the stepping down of Bill Gates in 2000, where Gates moved from CEO to board chairman, then to head of software, and eventually to only part time efforts with the company. Also, even with negative press, Apple’s stock has only decreased 5-7% post Jobs as CEO, reinforcing that the market is confident in the future of Apple and set for the release of iPhone 5 and the annual surge in profits.

    Linowes, J. G. (1998). Leadership in transition: Preparing your firm for your Successor. Journal of Management in Engineering, 14(5), 20. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

    • This strategy makes the most sense, to reinforce the Board of Directors with the outgoing CEO. Dr. Green posed a question on my comment asking, “How do you deal with weak boards”? I would say this strategy is excellent, especially if the CEO is strong as in the case with Apple. Steve can now let his successor take the reigns while he can serve as a brain-trust for major decisions. In the case of a weak board, the successor can still benefit from the aforementioned strategy, but now you have a veteran CEO sitting on the board to provide leadership. This strategy seems to provide multiple benefits for companies as Champ exemplified.

    • I really agree with what Mr. Knight and Mr. Singer have to say about having a strong board. A viable, working board can help the company make a relatively seamless transition of major changes such as replacing leadership. Having a strong Board that is in alignment with the company’s leadership and vision can and will work wonders for a company. Have a weak Board, however, and a company will be on a collision course. CEO’s are capable of doing so much, but in my opinion, a Board should be able to and willing to do even more. I used to say that a CEO should be able to reach the stars, and the Board should be able to reach out into the universe.
      I made a decision a long time ago that I would not ever work for a company that had a weak board.
      I made a decision a long time ago that I would not ever work for a company that had a weak board. I had that experience one time, and that was enough.

  10. I understand that Mr. Campbell has already used this quote; however, I am going to use it again. John Gamble and Arthur Thompson (2011) state, “For a strategic vision to function as a valuable managerial tool, it must provide understanding of what management wants its business to look like and provide managers with a reference point in making strategic decisions” (p. 18). Just because Steve Jobs is no longer with Apple does not mean that they have to completely rediscover themselves. Anyone will tell you that what they were under Jobs made them successful so why quit? I understand that Jobs is not there anymore, but they should still continue to follow the vision that Jobs left behind. The quote above talks about management understanding what the organization should look like. In my opinion, the previous time that Cook served as COO and acting CEO was an effort for Jobs to mold Cook into a leader that shared the same vision and ideas as Jobs. It is almost as if Cook was Jobs apprentice.

  11. Though I did feel that Apple will have an uphill climb with the recent resigning of Steve Jobs. I do not believe that this will be the end of the Apple era. As with all great leaders their time is limited. However, to suggest that with their passing is beginning of the end of such organizations would be a belittlement of the true qualities of a leader. Leaders not only lead through innovative strategies but also lead through the development of their future successor. These qualities are evident in leaders such Jim Owens who took over the realms of Caterpillar in 2004. In one of Owens first steps as CEO he developed the Leadership College of Caterpillar University. Owen not only saw the benefits that such a college would deliver within his own strategic plan, but would promote growth and prosperity for generations to come.
    Goldsmith, M. (2007, October 30). Developing strategic leadership. MARSHALL & FRIENDS, Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/oct2007/ca20071030_923312.htm

    • Nathan,
      I agree with you that leaders not only lead through innovative strategies but also lead through the development of their future successor. Leaders should not only concern themselves with the daily operations of their organization, but also with plans for the organizations future without them. They must be willing to be a mentor and empower a successor to their current position. This is the only way to provide a leadership legacy that will insure the future of the company long after they have left the organization.
      Unfortunately too many leaders lack the foresight or concern to plan for the leadership of an organization after they vacate their position. This is often true at all levels of leadership in a corporation including lower and middle management as well.

  12. “Where there is no vision the people perish.” — Proverbs 29:18

    Many organizations today find themselves in a state of turmoil after an unexpected loss of their CEO or a key figure of the executive staff. The problem is that many leaders today lack the insight to leave a legacy of succession for the future of the company. However, I feel this will not be the case for Apple. Steve Jobs has put in place a true definition of corporate vision through values, aspirations, and goals that appeal to the employees and customers of Apple .

    At the helm of Apple, Job’s made it clear the current position of the company and where the company would be in the future. In this last leadership saga with Apple, Jobs did not just concern himself with the daily business operations but was actively making plans for the changing of the guard and ensuring the organization’s survival. For some time now Jobs has been mentoring and empowering a successor to his current position and that is Tim Cook. Through Mr. Cook , Jobs has put in places a leadership and visionary legacy at Apple. Though Cook’s and Jobs’ leadership style is quite different they both process the same current vision for Apple.

    In order for Apple to stay competitive in an industry that is driven by technology over time the vision and direction will have to unavoidable change. For now, however; besides a few bumps in stock prices due to the change in leadership I feel that Apple will continue its success.

    Dane, M. (2009, December 1). How to create great mission, vision and values [Tips for Developing A Nonprofit Organization’s Calling]. Suite 101. Retrieved September 10, 2011, from http://www.suite101.com/content/how-to-create-great-mission-vision-and-values-a176956
    Maxwell, J. C. (1998). The 21 irrefutable laws of leadership (pp. 215-224). Nashville Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc.
    Melvin, K. (2010, May 16). Leadership defined – vision. Suite 101. Retrieved September 10, 2011, from http://www.suite101.com/content/leadership-defined–vision-a237950
    Quigley, J. V. (1994, October 1). Vision: How leaders develop it, share it, and sustain it. Business Horizons. Retrieved September 10, 2011, from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1038/is_n5_v37/ai_15859244/?tag=mantle_skin;content

  13. I believe that Apple will sustain itself with the loss of Steve Jobs. He has been an incredible visionary, bringing the company to what it is today. Tim Cook has acted in place of Steve Jobs for some time now. He should understand what the role of the CEO of Apple entails, and he should also understand what it means to be Apple.
    Apple provides innovative products that others cannot compare to. For example, Microsoft came out with Zune to compete with the Ipod. It has not fared well against Apple. According to Gamble and Thompson Jr. (2011), “By choosing a unique approach to providing value for customers, Apple has achieved an enduring brand loyalty that makes it difficult for others to triumph merely copying its strategic approach” I believe the Steve Jobs did a great job building the Apple brand. Now that he is leaving, customers will be curious to see what products are available next. People have chosen a loyalty to the Apple brand. Steve Jobs was the person who made this happen.

    Gamble, J., & Thompson, A. (2011). Essentials of Strategic Management. The Quest for Competitive Advantage. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Irwin.

  14. KEEP 191 WORDS INITIAL Memo to ‘alpha’ company leaders: If you want to leave a lasting monument, better be more beta-like.
    An organization ‘s vision that has been powerful enough to drive a company for a number of years should not change just because the leader changes. A good vision lives on and on. Dawn Levy of Stanford News Service says ,”Enduring companies have something in them that outlasts any leader, proceeding to draw a contrast between what he called “time-tellers” and “clock-builders.” (Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Professor Porras and coauthor Jim Collins, Harvard University) The former are the charismatic leaders, who build their companies around themselves. By dint of their advertising or engineering skills, selling prowess or general brilliance, time-tellers are looked to by subordinates for every major decision. When they leave, time-tellers leave a crater where the CEO’s leather chair used to be. Clock-builders, on the other hand, are “betas” who quietly go about building the organizational systems that will ensure the company’s continuity long after their passing ¬ they won’t have to be there for people to know what time it is.”

    Dawn Levy, Stanford News Service,http://news.stanford.edu/pr/01/beta613.html

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