Tim Cook Puts His Dent In The Universe

By taking public stands on social issues, Apple's CEO is forging a role as his own kind of visionary leader.

"We're here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?"

—Steve Jobs

Apple CEO Tim Cook's Monday Washington Post op-ed decrying Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act was remarkable for a number of reasons — foremost because Cook took a public stand on such a contentious issue just weeks ahead of what may well be the most important product launch of his career. But also because it answers a question that has nagged Apple since co-founder Steve Jobs died in 2011: "Can a great company remain great without its visionary leader?"

For those who worried that Jobs set an unmatchable standard for Cook to meet, the past few months have been a pointed rebuttal. With Jobs's passing, Apple may have lost a visionary leader. But in Cook, his handpicked successor, it may well have another. Different, but visionary just the same — a CEO who's willing to weigh in on political and human rights issues and to bring Apple's corporate might to bear on them at a time when the company commands the world's attention.

Speaking at a White House-organized cybersecurity summit in February, Cook warned of the "dire consequences" of forfeiting the right to privacy. "We still live in a world where all people are not treated equally," Cook said. Too many people do not feel free to express their opinion or love who they choose. ... We live in a world in which that information can make a difference between life and death.If those of us in positions of responsibility fail to do everything we can to protect the right of privacy, we risk something far more valuable than money: We risk our way of life."

Shortly after unveiling the Apple Watch in September, Cook publicly came out as gay in an editorial published by Bloomberg Businessweek. "...if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it's worth the trade-off with my own privacy," he wrote.

On Monday, Cook blasted Indiana's days-old religious-objections law, arguing that such legislation is an affront to human freedom and equality. "This isn't a political issue. It isn't a religious issue," he wrote. "This is about how we treat each other as human beings. Opposing discrimination takes courage. With the lives and dignity of so many people at stake, it's time for all of us to be courageous."

But by definition this is a political issue — perhaps it shouldn't be, but it is. Which makes it very dangerous for the CEO of any publicly traded, consumer-facing company to weigh in on. Because when Cook says something, it effectively means that the words are Apple's.

Cook has long been an advocate for human rights and equality. With these two op-eds, he's made Apple one as well. Both make it very clear that he's speaking as Apple's CEO or, in the case of the Washington Post piece, literally on behalf of Apple. Cook's call for social progress is now Apple's as well. And Apple, by joining him to make it, has smartly recognized that this is how Cook emerges from Jobs' shadow to become an iconic company leader in his own right. Recall that Jobs rarely weighed in on political issues and famously refused to participate in "The Giving Pledge" campaign started by billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

None of this is coincidence. Note that this is all happening ahead of Apple's biggest product launch since iPad. Note too, that until mid-2014, Cook had been a very private person. Indeed, in his Bloomberg editorial he cites his desire for privacy as a key reason for not coming out as gay sooner. By penning these op-eds and participating in these interviews he's forfeiting that privacy. And in doing so, he's allowing Apple to shape public perception of him as a leader — an altruist, a philanthropist, and a CEO every bit as worthy of leading Apple as Jobs.

As a strategy, it's potentially fraught — critics are already asking why Cook hasn't taken a similarly firm stance on human rights issues like these in China and posit Apple's business interests there as a possible answer. But as much as that's a question worth asking, it undermines the simple truth of the thing: Tim Cook, the out gay CEO of the world's most valuable company just said pro-discrimination "religious freedom" laws could undo "decades of progress" the country has made toward equal rights.

And that's a dent-the-universe moment, just as the Bloomberg editorial was before it. Giving it further heft, a new book about Steve Jobs — written with Apple's participation — reveals Cook offered an ailing Jobs a portion of his liver, and in a lengthy Fortune profile Cook discloses plans to donate his considerable fortune to charity — after he pays for his nephew's education.

As CEO of Apple, Cook certainly does "lead different" from Jobs, as Fortune observes in a headline spin on the company's old "Think Different" slogan. But in the sense of "think different" as a declaration of Apple's values, Cook and Jobs are clearly of the same mind. For Jobs, think different meant don't be afraid to change the world, because you can. Consider how he once explained it to PBS:

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is - everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That's maybe the most important thing. It's to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you're just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.

I think that's very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you'll want to change life and make it better, cause it's kind of messed up, in a lot of ways.

Life is kind of messed up. Change it. Make it better.

In making these public calls for social progress, Cook is doing just that, but in his own way. And by making them at this moment in time — ahead of the retail debut of Apple's first truly post-Steve Jobs device — the company is bringing him into his own an iconic leader, and vaporizing the Haunted Empire hand-wringing and "What Would Steve Do" yammering that's nagged it for years.

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