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The Glorious Leader syndrome and the family business

Following the resignation of Steve Jobs as CEO, Apple feels like a more fragile company today. The share price fell and those who work there or for one of the chip-makers and other businesses that rely on Apple will be wondering what the future holds.

Following the resignation of Steve Jobs as CEO, Apple feels like a more fragile company today. The share price fell and those who work there or for one of the chip-makers and other businesses that rely on Apple will be wondering what the future holds. Maybe that’s irrational, but the company’s image is so connected with Jobs that there will be some bitten fingernails in the tech world.

Jobs’ iconic status at Apple is partly down to technology writers, who welcomed his pronouncements as if they were hot off the presses at Mount Sinai, but the firm did little to dissuade it and let him unveil new products in weird, cultish presentations that resembled an American TV preacher’s modus operandi.

The challenge that Apple faces now is one that is familiar to family businesses: succession. Up until now the business has been using the Glorious Leader approach to business. Like an entrepreneurial family business founder, Jobs was the genius who was intimately connected in customers’ eyes with the products.

He founded it, he guided it and he sprinkled magic dust on it. Now that the Mao of the Mac has gone and taken his magic dust with him, the post-Jobs era will be tricky. Apple and its new CEO need to tread carefully.

Interestingly, a lot of successful technology companies have Glorious Leaders. Facebook has Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft has Bill Gates. Google has two, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, but they have the same symbolic role. Maybe it’s because their products are seen as disruptive, unpredictable things (Arthur C Clark famously said that if you don’t understand how it works, technology is indistinguishable from magic) and a reassuring patriarch in the CEO seat makes their gizmos less scary. Or maybe it’s because having a face makes PR easier.

However that may be, there’s something else that Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple have in common: they are not built for longevity. Nobody believes that these are businesses that will still be around in 50 or 100 years. Google has already mutated into an advertising firm and now with the launch of the Android operating system and the acquisition of Motorola, a soft- and hardware maker. Facebook will surely go the way of MySpace sooner or later.

Microsoft feels like a dinosaur. Anyway, all of those businesses have generated so much wealth that there’s no need to leave a business for the next generation – the inheritance will see them through. If you are not bothered about leaving a legacy, then succession doesn’t matter. In that case, you might as well have fun as a Glorious Leader. Why not?

But if you take a longer view, things are different. Many family businesses go through a Glorious Leader phase, most often with the founder/entrepreneur, and while it is tempting it makes for bad succession planning.

A business that is too closely linked with one person is as fragile as that single human being. The limelight might be fun and deliver a boost to the ego, even a short-term one to the bottom line, but in family businesses humility not just a virtue - it’s a duty. 

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