The Toughest Challenge For Steve Jobs' Heir Will Be To Replicate His Management Style

While investors grapple with the news of Steve Jobs’ medical leave, the pundits furiously speculate on potential replacements for Apple’s notoriously hands-on visionary.

The odds favour operational mastermind Tim Cook, design genius Jonathan Ive, market-savvy Phil Schiller, or technical dynamo Scott Forstall. Or, most likely, some combination of them.

As those bets get placed, Apple’s near-term future appears to be on solid footing – a slew of patents for gestural interfaces and wireless connectivity hint at a pipeline of intriguing new devices and applications for years to come.

But the competition is as hungry as ever to close the gap: as Microsoft opens its own stores, Dell tries to revive its brand through design, and centralized app stores become the norm for software distribution, it’s clear that the tech world at large has adopted Jobs’ vision of the future of computing in all its guises – a vision credited to his ability to identify consumer need-states before they even exist, and deliver compelling user- friendly products to fill that space.

Though Jobs’ vision has visible legs, two specific aspects of his run at the helm pose the most daunting challenges to the heirs apparent.

The first lies not in the stunning number of breakthrough innovations Jobs has unleashed, but in their nature. What’s easily forgotten in Apple’s soaring reputation and stock price is that what’s propelled the company to such heights has been a series of quintessentially high-risk big bets that few companies could ever stomach in such a short period of time.

To jump into one new business you’ve never played in before is, for most companies, a tightrope walk. Entering two markets concurrently is a tightrope in a crosswind. Yet it’s easy to look back on the iPod/iTunes double-barreled foray and think it was destined to work.

Hindsight’s glow also makes the leaps into the phone business, the selling of apps, movies and books, and the opening of the tablet market all seem like no brainers. That’s the hindsight talking. Risky bets all.

Risk management is Chapter 1 of CEO101, but Jobs has repeatedly thumbed his nose at the risk-reward curve and showed an envious business world that holding the public imagination captive and executing flawlessly can shift those curves.

If living in the thin air at the top of the risk curve isn’t intimidating enough for any successor, the second truth of ‘the Jobs way’ is its relentless velocity. He pushed Apple at a 100 beats-per-minute product cycle, audaciously yanking still-hot products off the market early where most companies would comfortably milk them to maturity. Eschewing that easy money, he chose instead to let competition chase a moving target, and to amplify his already high refresh rate by igniting developers to invent atop his inventions.

So, to any willing successor, here’s the brief: Define your next five big, high-risk/high reward bets, then go nail them all, at a pace where competition can’t touch you. Got it.

This is where the whole mystic/guru divide comes into play.

Steve Jobs is undeniably the innovation world’s Mystic-in-Chief. But not, to the outside world at least, its greatest guru.

Mystics amaze. Gurus teach.

Jobs has unleashed more magical ideas than anyone this side of DaVinci, but the famously private magician hasn’t shown much interest in being a teacher. He has amazed and inspired legions inside and outside Apple, but Apple’s future may ultimately pivot on how much he’s actually taught his great company.

P&G’s A.G. Lafley embraced the teacher’s mantle, pulling back the curtain on his success at turning his once-staid company into a top performing innovation engine. He focused not just on the ‘wow’, but equally on the ‘how’ – how to turn the pursuit of breakthrough innovation from a serendipitous rain dance into a more repeatable thing. Before he left the stage, he served up a blueprint to his own company and his FMCG peers. And it is this very type of thing that Apple may need whenever the curtain comes down on the stunning Jobs era: a blueprint no one else could write, built for the highwire.

Has the Jobs way of identifying those high-risk bets remained as shrouded in mystery inside Apple as outside it?

Has he taught a would-be heir how to have the moxie to pull the trigger on those big bets as often as he has?

Mystic or guru?

Time will tell.

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