By George Anders
When Steve Jobs stepped down as Apple Inc.'s chief executive officer yesterday, he left the company rich in cash, innovative products and management wisdom. The company's next leaders should view those legacies as long-lasting but not eternal.
Examples abound of landmark U.S. companies whose founders' presence dominated everyone's thinking years after leaving the stage. Walt Disney Co., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. all passed through stages where successors approached each big decision by asking: "What would Walt (or Bill and Dave, or Sam) do?"
Attempts to stay true to a company's heritage are inherently double-edged. Companies benefit when they remain faithful to core values. Everyone suffers when excessive respect for the past becomes stifling. After Walt Disney's death in 1966, his old company lost the ability to make hit movies, even as executives stockpiled transcripts of the founder's remarks. Successors earn their keep by distinguishing between what should stay constant and what must change.
Jobs's ideas about creativity, design and innovation are likely to be admired long after he's gone. It's a safe bet, too, that Apple's offerings in 2020 will need to include many products, partners and customers that aren't on the drawing board today.
By promoting its long-time chief operating officer, Tim Cook, to be CEO, Apple has astutely taken care of continuity. Jobs remains chairman, and if he can prevail in his long-running battle against pancreatic cancer, his input will continue to be felt for some time. Still, as Bloomberg reporters Adam Satariano and Peter Burrows point out today, Apple will need to move beyond a "father knows best" approach to its toughest management decision -- when to deviate from the path set by Jobs.
(George Anders is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)