Matthew Ferrara, Philosopher

Managers: Don’t Copy Tim Cook’s Leadership Style

Sun Cook?[/caption]

Tim Cook’s firing of Scott Forstall last week heralds a new, darker era of style at Apple. One we don’t recommend anyone copy.

This week, Tim Cook, the first post-Steve Jobs CEO of Apple, fired the head of the iOS team, Scott Forstall. Ostensibly, the main reason for Forstall’s firing was the release of Apple’s first but flawed mapping software, causing embarrassment and tarnishing Apple’s image with fans and investors. Some reports said that Forstall was asked to leave because he refused to sign a public letter apologizing for the poorly released mapping software. Others say it was mostly internal politics, as Forstall was a close Jobs confidant, and often clashed with other senior leaders. Adding it all up, it was time to Forstall to go.


If we know anything about Apple, we know it’s not about conformity. Everything about the company Jobs built was about conflict: his leadership style, products that broke with the dominant computer-user experience, an ecosystem that broke the financial models in software and music, ushering in an era of $1 music and applications. If Cook fired Forstall because he was a challenging element of the management team, it means the new CEO doesn’t have a clue about the company he now leads.

Furthermore, if the mapping software was so important to Apple’s future strategy – not only to wean users away from Google but to place Siri at the center of the experience – then where was the CEO during the development process? Are we to believe Cook decided to release the iPhone 5 without knowing there were bugs in the mapping? Impossible. More likely, he made his first executive mistake: sticking to the release schedule (to please investors?) rather than delay in order to get it right. That’s Cook’s error, not Forstall’s.

Some observers think Cook wanted to make an example of Forstall, as some sort of accountability exercise. If so, it’s a lousy example, one that will only put fear in the hearts of others considering leadership roles at Apple. And not just fear: fear of being set up. Cook, as CEO, should have been aware, involved and managing the delays or problems with Apple maps. He should have supported his development team by pushing back the release, rather than permitting them to look bad. This stuff is management 101.

If the last straw came when Forstall declined to sign a public letter apologizing for the buggy mapping software, then the wrong person was fired. Insisting that anyone at your company be publicly humiliated for their mistakes isn’t just bad management: it’s cruel. I’m all for companies taking responsibility for mistakes: but releasing bad maps barely rises to the level of inconvenience. There was plenty else to be delighted about from the new iPhone. I personally can’t stand overly-apologizing companies; transparency is one thing, but simpering prostration for every mistake is a turn off. So maps didn’t work; Big deal. Customers quickly downloaded an app and overcame it. They’ll happily download the updated fixes when ready. Life went on.

Nobody needed to see Forstall’s head on a pike to navigate to Starbucks that day.

If Tim Cook wanted Scott Forstall to leave, he should have done it in an honest and straightforward way. Cook could have explained he had a new vision for Apple: one where everyone got along singing kumbaya; where people making mistakes would be publicly flogged; and where the management style would be sink-or-swim, because we’re now working on the investor’s schedule for new product releases. I’m sure Forstall would have resigned gladly that day. Who would want to work for a CEO like that?

I suspect not even Steve Jobs.

  • Thom

    You’re basing an awful lot on pure speculation. Not one thing that you said in your post is necessarily true or confirmed – it’s just “assumptions” that have been bantered around in various blogs.

    Until we hear straight from the horse’s mouth, I think it’s foolish to make assumptions based on any of the rubbish one reads on blogs. As we know, they’re hardly based in truth, and most often, just filled with link baiting material.

  • Thanks for your comment.

    What you call speculation I might call interpretation. I don’t claim any clairvoyance into Tim Cook’s mind. However, based upon news reports of the “letter of apology” and my experience with management styles, it’s my interpretation of the events. You are welcome to offer an alternate theory, too.
    It’s always easy to say how someone else is wrong. I challenge you to offer a different interpretation or explain why Tim Cook’s actions might be positive for the company (one could speculate on that). I took the events I saw and analyzed them to the best of my ability.
    Sorry you think this blog is just link baiting.

    Have a good day,

  • I don’t know, Matthew… this is the first I’m hearing of this, but since we’re just talking interpretations here…

    The most likely reason is “internal politics”, namely the New Regime cleaning out the Old Regime. Think about Apple. That company was an absolute dictatorship under Jobs. He may have been a benevolent dictator, or a malevolent one (depending on which Apple employee you ask), but… there was one thing about Jobs that justified all of his strange management practices: he was a bona fide genius.

    The problem for the guy taking over for the genius is that he isn’t one. And chances are, there were a lot of senior managers who cut their teeth under Jobs. Who knows if Forstall was a rival for the CEO job, and Cook knew it.

    So his first job is to kill off pretenders to the throne and consolidate his power. The map thing was likely just an excuse to get rid of a powerful manager.

    Now… is that good management? Of course not. But I think companies and organizations built around a single powerful personality tend to go that way.

  • Rob:

    I would agree with parts of your interpretation; but I don’t think it’s the right strategy at all. That’s why I criticize Cook on it. “Consolidating your power” doesn’t seem like the management approach for a company trying to thrive in a very competitive innovation sector. And killing the first contender to the thrown for making a mistake as silly as a bad mapping app will send a chilling effect through the entire organization.
    Certainly there will be a change in style from one leader to the next. My objection is that this isn’t the style to change “to” in any case.
    Thanks for the comment!

    — Matthew