The Steve Jobs resurrectionist cult.

It happens like clockwork. Every year when Apple hosts their annual keynote unveiling the latest iPhone or other product updates, critics start chiming in with the same refrain - Steve Jobs wouldn’t have released that. Steve Jobs wouldn’t have announced that. Steve Jobs wouldn’t have said that. And even if he had, he wouldn’t have done it like that. And even if he had done it like that, it would have - somehow - been better.

In essence, there is a sort of “Steve Jobs Resurrectionist Cult” that forms each product cycle. No matter how many years pass since his death, a contingent of Apple enthusiasts hold tight to the belief that Tim Cook can never live up to Jobs’ legacy of innovation and visionary leadership. This line of thinking not only diminishes Cook, it hinders Apple’s progress. And it speaks to the hero worship that has become endemic to technology.

There is no denying the monumental influence that Steve Jobs had on Apple and the wider tech landscape. His commitment to exceptional design, intuitive user experiences, and deep understanding of both consumer desires and market trends set him apart as a once-in-a-lifetime leader. He revolutionized personal computing and disrupted multiple industries time and again.

Much of Apple’s early success and spirit of innovation can be traced back to Jobs. From the first Macintosh released in 1984 to the launch of the iPod in 2001 after Jobs' return, his vision guided Apple’s trajectory. His keynote presentations unveiled groundbreaking products and stoked anticipation among fans. And his meticulous attention to detail ensured that every product both looked beautiful and worked seamlessly.

Steve Jobs encapsulated the heart and soul of Apple during his tenure as CEO from 1997 to 2011. But it's unrealistic to expect his exact qualities to be replicated, or to force Apple to remain stagnant after Jobs' passing.

After assuming leadership following Jobs’ death in 2011, Tim Cook faced the immense challenge of shepherding Apple into a new era. His task was not only to ensure business continuity, but to chart a course for long-term innovation and success.

And by many measures, he has proven himself up to the task. Under Cook's stewardship, the iPhone remains a global phenomenon, while new products like the Apple Watch, AirPods and services including Apple Pay and Apple TV+ have expanded the company’s ecosystem. Vision Pro is expected to do the same.

Cook has demonstrated strengths in areas like sustainability, labor conditions, and corporate philanthropy—causes that Jobs did not prioritize as highly.

While Cook’s style differs from Jobs, he has made bold moves when needed. His decision to invest in spacial audio and fast-track AR/VR development proves Apple still has vision under his leadership.

Most importantly, Cook has adapted his leadership approach to the modern context. The reality is the job of CEO changes every day because the world changes. The iPhone's success brought new challenges as markets matured. Cook has responded by expanding services and pursuing emerging opportunities.

Constantly questioning “What would Steve Jobs have done?” fosters a culture of nostalgia that is unproductive at best and dangerous at worst.

It represents a selective memory that overlooks the inconvenient truths of Jobs' tenure. While brilliant in many aspects, he also faced major flops like the Power Mac G4 Cube and made strategic mistakes that led to financial struggles in the 1990s. Jobs himself would likely be the first to say that his approach should not be blindly adhered to forever.

Most importantly, the what-would-Jobs-do mindset limits Apple’s potential and inhibits fresh thinking. Tim Cook and his executive team have insights into the current market landscape and new technologies that Jobs lacked. As consumer electronics and computing evolves exponentially, leaders must be willing to disrupt themselves.

An obsession with trying to emulate Jobs undermines Cook and risks fostering internal conflict. It sends the message that management will always be judged against the standard of “What would Steve do?”

At its most extreme, the relentless comparison between Cook and Jobs reflects a cult mentality among some Apple fans. They speak of Jobs’ values and approach in reverential terms and refuse to acknowledge any drawbacks. There is a sense that the spirit of innovation left Apple with Jobs' passing.

This perspective treats Apple’s history as orthodoxy never to be questioned. It positions Jobs as a savant-like figure whose shoes no successor could ever fill. Such hero worship actually does a disservice to Jobs' legacy as it stifles open thinking and creativity – the very qualities that empowered Apple’s early success.

Moreover, technology has changed enormously in the decade since Jobs' death. The rise of cloud computing, AI, mobile networks, and new developer tools have fundamentally transformed consumer expectations, markets, and best practices. What worked in the early 2000s might be totally unfit for the 2020s. Cook and others have the job of leading Apple to the future, not attempt to recreate the past.

Jobs was a leader for the ages and his principles of simplicity, design-focus, and user empathy remain guiding lights. But that does not mean all of Apple’s future decisions need to align precisely with his approach.

Rather than endlessly judging Cook against the standard of a man who has been dead for 12 years, it would be more productive to appreciate both leaders’ contributions in their respective eras. We should recognize that the same company can have radically different needs under varying market conditions.

Jobs gave Apple its spirit of originality and molded it into a design and customer experience leader. Now Cook steers Apple toward services, emerging technologies, and new business models as computing evolves. Both leaders made bold and controversial moves in their eras, even when those decisions countered Apple’s own traditions.

Reasonable critiques can be made of Apple’s current strategic decisions on their own merits. But that analysis should be focused on present and future conditions, not an abstraction of how Jobs handled a vaguely similar issue in the past.

Both Jobs and Cook will be regarded as pivotal figures in Apple's history. But the company’s fate will be determined by its ability to keep innovating under Cook and his eventual successors. To do so, Apple needs to look forward with optimism, not remain stuck gazing back at the past.

Apple’s product launch events will always have an aura of nostalgia, invoking memories of Jobs' famous speeches. But nostalgia must not curtail Apple’s willingness to think differently.

Tim Cook will never be identical to Steve Jobs - nor should he try to be. Apple is ready for a new era guided by Cook’s strengths in sustainability, emerging technologies, and new services.

The company is poised for a new generation of innovation as it expands into augmented reality, autonomous vehicles, AI, and more. But this future depends on moving beyond the cult of personality centered on Jobs and embracing new styles of leadership.

No company can prosper in the present by clinging to decisions made in the past. As Apple ventures into the 2020s and beyond, it can appreciate the legacies of both Jobs and Cook while being empowered to chart an ambitious new course. The fruits of Apple’s next chapter lie ahead, not behind.

@Westenberg logo
Subscribe to @Westenberg and never miss a post.