What's cooking in Apple history? Leander Kahney paints a human picture of Tim Cook
There haven’t been too many figureheads in the technology world who can ever claim to be as big, influential or larger-than-life than the late Steve Jobs.
That is why, when Tim Cook took over from Jobs as the CEO of Apple in 2011, the world remained circumspect about how he would follow in the footsteps of one of history’s greatest business visionaries.
Cook, as it turned out, defied all expectations, and under his leadership, Apple soared with its stock nearly tripling, making it the world’s first trillion-dollar company.
Cook has also received much praise for his new style of management that emphasises kindness, collaboration and honesty, even as he has quietly been pushing Apple to support sexual and racial equal rights, and to invest heavily in renewable energy.
All of this made Cook’s story quite irresistible, and in the hands of Leander Kahney, the story turns into a delightfully inspiring, and surprisingly straightforward biography, titled Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level.
Leander, who lives and works in San Francisco, has already written four books about Apple and the culture of its followers, including Inside Steve’s Brain and Cult of Mac.
A former Wired news editor, and currently the editor and publisher of CultofMac.com, Leander took time off to chat with Indulge over an email interview.
As a writer, given the manner of access to information that you had, how difficult was it to still maintain a sense of objectivity about Tim Cook? A strong sense of familiarity comes through in the book, of course, but you still manage to address Tim Cook not just in the third person, but as someone truly larger than life.
It was easy to remain objective. I’ve been a journalist for almost 30 years, and I can maintain professional objectivity. Perhaps the sense of Cook comes through because Apple helped out with interviews for the book, by providing access to several of Cook’s executives. This helped enormously, and shaped the structure and content of the book. It provided a more intimate portrait of the man.
We've found many new books in recent times that seem to be focused on debunking myths about the tech world, unraveling secrets of leaders with public profiles, and breaking down untruths about new-age management. Given all of that, this book is so much more refreshing — as it is genuinely inspiring, and stays clear of grey areas, and gossipy fluff. Was that your intention — to, in a sense, clean up the literature floating around about technology giants in the present day?
One of the primary inspirations for the book was Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. While it was a great and monumental work, I felt that it did not adequately explore what Steve Jobs did at work.
I know this might sound strange, but it really didn’t explain how Jobs worked, exactly. I wanted to write a business biography of Tim Cook, focusing on his work. I stayed away from his personal life, and the gossip surrounding it. I was interested in his work, not his home life, and I hope readers agree.
You also stop short of making too many comparisons between Jobs and Cook — be it in personal terms, work culture and ethics or plain leadership skills. In a casual manner, if you were asked to compare Cook to other giants of innovation — who would you pitch him against, and why?
I’d compare Tim Cook to Robert Iger, the current CEO of Disney. Both men are in charge of huge, iconic companies. Both companies had visionary founders, but they are very different to when they were started, and they need CEOs with different skills. Both Cook and Iger have proven capable of running big, complex companies with disparate businesses and in challenging business environments, but not only have they survived, they’ve thrived.
There’s so much here we get to learn not just about Cook, but also about Apple — especially, with their social causes, and the many efforts to protect human rights and promote environment conservation. These are initiatives that we don’t really get to hear about too much, often being caught up with updates and new releases by Apple.
Yes, it’s true that the public doesn’t get to hear about Cook’s environmental and workforce initiatives as much as new products, but they are just as important. Cook’s leadership on the environment, for example, has transformed Apple from one of the least green companies in Silicon Valley into one of the greenest.
This is important, because when a company as big as Apple goes 100% green, it affects others, like the utility companies. They are also getting greener because companies like Apple are demanding green energy, so it has a knock-on effect.
How close did you get to Tim Cook when he faced his share of challenges — from being Apple’s first openly gay CEO to a role model for the LGBTQ community? While he is known to be quiet and down-to-earth, did he ever confide to you about his own worries and anxieties?
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to know Cook, but I did get to interview his close colleagues, who provided quite an intimate portrait. And, Cook has given speeches and talks about coming out as gay, joining Apple and other emotional parts of his life. I didn’t leave out anything I discovered.
Was it a conscious decision to avoid too much writing about technical specifications of Apple products, as the narrative seems more focused on management concerns, marketing battles and even of ‘showing off’ new developments.
Yes, exactly. I don’t think the technical specs of Apple’s products are important or even very interesting. They are fleeting, and in a few years’ time, no one will remember or care the storage capacity of the latest iPhone. Far more important are the processes and business practices that created the iPhone, and that’s what I wanted to explore.
How much has employee morale has varied under Cook’s leadership? There have been highs and lows in more than just share prices during his tenure, and instances of user backlashes. Do Apple staffers have faith in Cook as a leader?
Employee morale is excellent under Cook. Every one of Apple’s staffers that I talked to had very high confidence in him, and the direction he is leading Apple. Of course, these people all work for him, but I got the strong sense they were being sincere and truthful. There’s a lot of genuine affection for Cook among Apple’s staff. He’s a good man, a good leader, and they genuinely respect him.
At the end of the book, there’s a niggling feeling, like we missed something — that might well be about a sense of idolising we have been so used to, when it came to Steve Jobs. Will Cook, in your eyes, ever be as influential and inspiring as Jobs?
It’s unlikely that Tim Cook will ever become as idolised as Steve Jobs. Jobs had a magnetic charisma, an amazing media profile, and (when younger) rockstar good looks. It all adds up to a persona that’s easy to mythologise. I doubt Cook will ever be venerated in the same way, but it’s early days yet. Perhaps Cook will have a spectacular run these next few years, and introduce a string of hit products that puts him up there with Jobs. We will see.
— Jaideep Sen
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