On Leadership

“I hereby resign as CEO of Apple.”

Those words, written two days ago by Steve Jobs, shouldn’t hit as hard as they do. Jobs’ health issues have been public knowledge for a long time, and he has taken multiple indefinite hiatuses. But it unsettles me seeing it spelled out as plainly as that (“I hereby resign”). I could talk about Jobs and what a remarkable person and leader he is, but you can go elsewhere for that. That’s all been said. I have one simple observation.

It occurred to me that as unsettled as I was about Jobs’ resignation, I have no doubts that Apple’s future is bright. Although Jobs singlehandedly saved the company from disaster when he rejoined, its success in recent years (iPod onward) has seemed more of an all-company effort. There weren’t enough hours in the day for Jobs to lend his magic touch to every product and every feature and every marketing campaign. Yet every product and every feature and every marketing campaign seemed as if he’d personally influenced it.

So here’s my observation: leadership isn’t just about raw navigation. It’s not about the executive decisions you make. Leadership is about principles. A leader who has a vision, can condense that vision into principles, and infuse the entire organization with those principles, will have a lasting effect long after they’ve left.

I think about that concept a lot within the context of WordPress. While technical merit is obviously valued, we wouldn’t give more responsibility to someone just because they were technically skilled. They have to “get” the project. They have to know, understand, and be able to communicate the philosophies that guide the project. Without this guide, it would just be a bunch of warring egos. Having this philosophical base creates a stronger sense of contributing to something greater than yourself. And it guides our debates.

Can you summarize Apple in a single sentence that contains the kernel of their vision?

Apple — Create magical computing experiences. Easy enough.

Do your own for Zappos and 37signals. No problem.

Now try to do that for Microsoft, or HP, or Adobe, or RIM. Actually, don’t. You might hurt yourself. With those companies, a leadership change might be a calamitous event. But if your organization is guided more by principles than individuals, you can easily weather a leadership change. Apple will be just fine.