What Would Jobs Do? | When Great Leaders Die | Succession

The times are always a-changing. No matter how much we would like the status quo to remain, it never does. The movements that are happening in the Arab world are testament to this.

At a more benign level, Steve Jobs is going to die. It’s not a prediction based on his current health, just a statement of the obvious. We’re all going to die. It’s just that not all of us are figureheads of culturally important organisations – and our passing may not provoke huge movements in stock value, or a worried furrowing of thousands of hipster brows concerned about what Apple is going to be when jJobs does leave.

The question of succession is a very important one, and for organisations with a charismatic founder/figurehead it is perhaps the most important one. (For the past 26 years the manager of Manchester United has been Alex Ferguson. He can’t go on forever, and I’m really not sure how anyone will be able to take his place. Without doubt the club will suffer a blip.) But for Apple perhaps the worst possible scenario would be to keep asking the question ‘What Would Jobs Do?’

As soon as this becomes the governing dynamic the organisation is no longer a living, evolving organism, but just a shrine to a past time – an attempt to venerate one person’s vision, rather than sustain the spirit of that vision.

The religious parallels are obvious. All faiths must lose their ‘great leader’ and the key question is how they then move on from that moment. Islam (and Christianity to some extent) suffered from serious schism at the point of succession – arguments breaking out about who was the better person to carry on the vision that Mohammed had started.

The difference in Christianity is that we have been gifted a mechanism of succession through Pentecost: the ‘spirit’ of the great leader is literally shared out among his deputies. I’ve written here before about Christian community being unique in that it gathers around an absence – and it is the acceptance of that absence that I think is vital. To spend energy trying to fill that absence by redoubling the energy, by trying to conjure the great leader back to life with his image plastered over every surface, his words repeated like mantras and ossified into commandments – all of this is to move towards the death of the living community and into… dead religion.

A story I was told, which I repeat here but claim no verification for, is that when John Wimber died some of those who were closest to him remained sat in the front row of the Anaheim Vineyard – the ‘mega church’ that he had led – and either nodded or shook their heads at what was going on. ‘What Would John Have Done’ became the governing ethic… and attendance at the church plummeted very quickly.

To be honest, I couldn’t care less about what happens to Apple, and I wish Jobs well for his recovery. But it will be very interesting to observe how the faithful respond to his inevitable passing, and how the succession process will be handled by those left in charge.

This is something I’m really keen to discuss at the next Apple – Apple on Apple – which will be on March 16th, 7:30pm, at the Betsey. Look forward to seeing you there. In the mean time, here’s a poem from Other – which should be out in the US soon.

Small Screen Communion

iPod, phone
held close
and thumbed,
reflecting so dimly
on lichened branches
fingering the above,
are such small lights
on these paths
at night.

What possible guidance
could they offer?

Yet still
I look,
still we look,
so intently
at their ever-decreasing thinness
and ask of them
the same
as wafers
once gave.

© KB September 2009


One response to “What Would Jobs Do? | When Great Leaders Die | Succession”

  1. When I was at university, we studied a bit about Max Weber’s concept of the ‘routinization of charisma’ which is about exactly this – how a charismatic leader of a religious, political or other movement is succeeded.

    If I remember rightly, in most successful cases the leadership gets passed on to a more bureaucratic entity – sort of going from the founder-pioneer to a board of trustees or the establishment of a priesthood. The leadership seems to pass from one person on to a council or college of leaders.