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Another Look at the Steve Jobs Longevity Dilemma

The other day I read a story in which it was reported that Apple’s market cap dropped some $19 billion within days because of concerns about the health of CEO Steve Jobs. Indeed, this feeling was buttressed by photos showing Jobs appearing somewhat emaciated in certain poses during his WWDC keynote.

Now considering his massive presence at Apple and his legendary vision that evidently translates itself into incredible consumer-oriented products, you have to wonder how or even if Apple would survive if he left the company — or just became too ill to continue his job.

Certainly, as a survivor of pancreatic cancer, Jobs is extremely lucky. He suffered from a variety of that condition that was treatable; most are not. In fact, my mother-in-law, bless her soul, died of pancreatic cancer years ago, just days before she was due to be admitted into an experimental program. But even then, they didn’t hold out much hope for her longevity in the best of circumstances.

While Jobs is reportedly fully recovered, or at least that’s what Apple tells us, you can see where there’s a greater sensitivity to issues of health. As part of his cancer treatment, for example, Jobs has experienced weight loss, which is supposedly normal in such situations, so that might explain why he seems a little too thin. No, there’s no intimation that he has an anorexia-related condition.

In response to questions about his health, Apple said Jobs caught a “bug,” which seems reasonable. I remember an Apple meeting some years back, before the cancer episode, where Jobs was sneezing occasionally. But we didn’t harbor concerns about his health then.

Now Jobs has already been asked the touchy question about succession, and has said that there are a number of fully-qualified executives at the company who could run Apple in the event of his departure, planned or otherwise.

I have no doubt that this is true, in large part. Certainly Jobs is not an engineer, and he’s not a programmer. While he has what can only be described as a genius-level capability of motivating his troops to produce truly great and incredibly innovative products, clearly there are others at Apple who must carry out his wishes — or demands. More to the point, not all of the great ideas at Apple originate with its CEO.

All we know about his management style is largely legendary. He seems to be a mercurial character in public, and reports of former Apple employees — who might surely have axes to grind — indicate that he will engage in big-time head games and literally yell at both executives and regular employees alike to force them to deliver the goods. If you give him a new idea, he’ll allegedly challenge you near to the point of tears to justify your creation and prove it has merit.

If you survive this painful process, you get to keep your job, and maybe, just maybe, get a promotion if your work continues to past muster.

Some feel that Apple VP Phil Schiller is a potential CEO candidate. When not playing comedy relief to Jobs during a keynote address, he comes across as smart, articulate, with a great sense of humor. Does he have a vision? Who knows? Can he manage the team and continue to build successors to today’s Macs, the iPod, the iPhone and expand those initiatives into other eras of potential success?

Honestly, I just don’t know. Certainly other executives at Apple and elsewhere are considered potential CEO candidates, and I wouldn’t presume to understand their capabilities under fire, but I can understand the concerns. After Jobs departed the company he co-founded in the mid-1980s, Apple went through a spate of incompetent executives who began an endless downward spiral that nearly did the company in.

When Jobs convinced Apple to buy NeXT in 1996, Apple was on the ropes. Its efforts to produce a successor to the aging, rickety Mac OS had been unsuccessful, after years of trying. The Mac OS clone program had been a failure, and the clone makers, contrary to what Apple expected at the time, went after the mother ship’s core market with a vengeance.

How Jobs managed the palace coup behind the scenes isn’t important. What is important is that he regained control, and cast of the dead wood, including the cloning program. Apple became a leaner, meaner company, with noticeably less revenue for a number of years before the great explosion began and the company rose from the ashes to become the huge success it is today.

Could Apple find another corporate whip-cracker with the right vision and the wherewithal to set goals and see them through to completion? I expect they can, and I also expect that some of the existing executives are being tested to see if they are capable of replacing Steve Jobs.

But those are big shoes to fill, and I can see where Wall Street is getting concerned even at the hint that Jobs may be experiencing a bout of poor health. May he live long and prosper. I don’t think anyone at Apple would like consider the prospects of a successor anytime soon.