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Profiles in Leadership: Tim Cook

February 2, 2021


Character and Values Matter


In today’s global environment character and values matter, especially when you lead one of the world’s largest companies. Tim Cook (@tim_cook), CEO of Apple, is setting an example of ethical leadership. Such leadership is essential in the Digital Age. As CEO of an emerging Autonomous Decision Science™ (ADS®) company, I, along with my technology team, think daily and deeply about creating Intelligent Agents capable of making decisions ethically — decisions that reflect the situational judgment and ethical direction that enlightened human leaders would make if they were making the decision themselves. When presented with problems that have effects beyond company boundaries, great leaders shine; and, Cook, by making value-based decisions,  is leading from the front.


Re-making Apple in his own image


Assuming the reins of a successful company, like Apple, and having to follow a legendary leader, like Steve Jobs, can be a daunting task.  Cook has been equal to the challenge. When Cook joined Apple in March 1998 as a senior vice president for worldwide operations, his principal background was in supply chain operations. Prior to working for Apple, he was Vice President of Corporate Materials for Compaq. Before joining Compaq, he worked a dozen years at IBM, where he eventually became Director of North American Fulfillment. In that capacity, he led manufacturing and distribution functions for IBM’s Personal Computer Company in North and Latin America.[1] Although fellow supply chain professionals cheered Cook’s promotion, others weren’t so sure he was up to the task. Tripp Mickle (@trippmickle), who covers Apple Inc. for The Wall Street Journal, explains, “After Steve Jobs’ death, Silicon Valley anticipated Apple Inc.’s business would falter. Wall Street fretted about the road ahead. And loyal customers agonized about the future of a beloved product innovator.”[2]


How has Cook done? Mickle reports, “Today, Apple shares are at record highs. The company’s market valuation is $1.9 trillion — bigger than the GDP of Canada, Russia or Spain. And Apple, now the world’s largest company, continues to dominate the smartphone market.” He adds, “It is a testament to how an industrial engineer — a man Bono called the Zen master — has turned Steve Jobs’ creation into Tim Cook’s Apple, delivering one of the most lucrative business successions in history through a triumph of method over magic.” Being a leader, however, means more than just making money for shareholders. Wikipedia notes, “During his tenure as the chief executive, he has advocated for the political reformation of international and domestic surveillance, cybersecurity, American manufacturing, and environmental preservation.” Cook wants to be on the right side of history when his tenure is over — and he wants Apple there with him. Cook won’t even let bad guys be seen using an iPhone in movies.[3]


The feud with Facebook


Cook’s good guy image, however, is currently being put to the test. Another tech giant, Facebook, is trying to make Apple (and Cook) look like the bad guy in a very public feud. Journalist Andy Meek (@aemeek) reports, “The Facebook vs Apple spat over data privacy that’s been simmering for years might end up in a courtroom soon. Both companies’ CEOs … have continued taking swipes at the other, as they’ve been doing for months now, over their competing approaches to privacy and user tracking. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for example, told analysts during the social network’s latest quarterly earnings presentation … that Apple’s whole philosophy around privacy is not as virtuous as it sounds — that it’s really just about helping Apple’s business. ‘Apple may say they’re doing this to help people, but the moves clearly track with their competitive interests,’ Zuckerberg said during the company’s earnings call. Apple CEO Tim Cook, meanwhile, eviscerated Facebook’s approach to privacy in a speech … as part of the EU’s Computers, Privacy and Data Protection conference, without even calling out Facebook by name.”[4] Here is what Cook said during that speech:


Technology does not need vast troves of personal data stitched together across dozens of websites and apps in order to succeed. Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it, and we’re here today because the path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom. If a business is built on misleading users on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform. We should not look away from the bigger picture and a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theory is juiced by algorithms. We can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement, the longer the better, and all with the goal of collecting as much data as possible. Too many are still asking the question, ‘How much can we get away with?’ When they need to be asking, ‘What are the consequences?’ What are the consequences of prioritizing conspiracy theories and violent incitement simply because of the high rates of engagement? What are the consequences of not just tolerating but rewarding content that undermines public trust in life-saving vaccinations? What are the consequences of seeing thousands of users joining extremist groups and then perpetuating an algorithm that recommends even more? It is long past time to stop pretending that this approach doesn’t come with a cause. A polarization of lost trust, and yes, of violence. A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe.”


According to journalist and author Justin Bariso (@JustinJBariso), “The problem is that Apple’s and Facebook’s business philosophies are diametrically opposed to each other.”[5] He explains, “Apple is a lifestyle brand. And part of the lifestyle Apple sells is users having more control over their privacy. Facebook, on the other hand, is in the data business. The more data they collect on users, the more effectively they can sell targeted ads. But collecting and selling all that data comes at great cost, as Cook highlights. ‘The end result of all of this is that you are no longer the customer,’ said Cook. ‘You are the product.'” Bariso argues that Cook, a man known for being nice, would rather be right than nice — although those are not diametrically opposed attributes. He also argues that Cook’s position is likely to prevail. He explains, “If you’re an advertiser, you’ll need to adapt. Or die. But there’s also a bigger lesson at stake. Now is the time to ask yourself: Which philosophy do I want to pursue? Do I want a business that serves my customers? Or one that takes advantage of customers to serve my business? Because in the end, only one of these philosophies is sustainable for the long-term. The other will lead you to crash and burn. And while the long-term solution may initially prove more challenging, remember: ‘The path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom.'”


Concluding thoughts


In his European speech, Cook tried to convince his audience that not all “Big Tech” companies are the same. He lamented that big tech companies are often given a “broad-brush categorization” that lumps major companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple all in the same category. He concluded, “I try to encourage people to think a level deeper than that and think about the companies themselves and their business models and how they conduct themselves, and so on and so forth — what their values are.” Values mean a lot to Cook — and that’s one characteristic that makes a great leader. What Cook does in the future could change how big tech companies conduct business. As the late motivational speaker and business guru Stephen Covey once stated, “What you do has far greater impact than what you say.”


[1] Apple Leadership, “Tim Cook, Chief Executive Officer,” Apple.com.
[2] Tripp Mickle, “How Tim Cook Made Apple His Own, The Wall Street Journal, 7 August 2020.
[3] Jon Porter, “Apple won’t let bad guys use iPhones in movies, says Knives Out director,” The Verge, 26 February 2020.
[4] Andy Meek, “Facebook is about to take its war with Apple to a whole new level,” BGR, 28 January 2021.
[5] Justin Bariso, “Tim Cook May Have Just Ended Facebook,” Inc., 30 January 2021.™

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