Apple CEO Steve Jobs has finally disclosed some details about the cause of his recent weight loss, saying that a hormone imbalance has been to blame for his gaunt appearance. The statement is unlikely to mean that journalists, bloggers and other interested parties leave him in peace, nor stop asking morbid questions about his health and what happens in future to an Apple one its core is gone. A slightly ghoulish state of affairs to be sure, but that’s what happens when the CEO becomes embodiment of the corporate entity.
There aren’t many bosses who are so closely identified with the company they lead, though Richard Branson is one and Michael Dell another, of course. In the past there was Sir John Harvey-Jones at ICI and Lee Iacocca at Chrysler. And there have always been Victor Kiam types who seemed to have a brand that exceeded the companies they reported. What’s remarkable about Jobs is that Apple management once saw fit to let him leave and it was only through his second coming at Cupertino (helped by successes at Next and Pixar) that he was recognised as one of the great business leaders. Apple laboured in the years of John Sculley, Gil Amelio et al and in retrospect the release of Jobs looks about as smart as St Mirren getting rid of Sir Alex Ferguson.
These brand-name bosses bring a lot to their organisations in marketing terms, humanising the pieces of tin, code and other products and services they hawk, but the fascination over Jobs’ health suggests that fame of executives can be a two-way street, leading to plunging confidence and stock value when the great oracle appears to weaken. Perhaps Apple needs to do more to promote the public face of other executives (as it has with iPod designer Jonathan Ive) and create a managed succession in the same way that Bill Gates edged away from Microsoft without undue alarm on behalf of customers.
It’s worth remembering that executive brand-building builds a legacy – and not entirely for the good unless you respect the effect of great figurehead that has been developed.