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Nancy Koehn

Nancy Koehn

Nancy F. Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School and author, most recently, of The Story of American Business: From the Pages of the New York Times.

Fuel for the journey

When we talk of the secret sauce in Apple's success, we have to start with Steve Jobs and several aspects of his entrepreneurial leadership. (I say "entrepreneurial leadership" because Jobs has consistently managed this large company by relentlessly pursuing new opportunities despite obstacles in his and the organization's path. And this is the essence of entrepreneurship).

First, Jobs is a person of intense drive, unflagging curiosity and keen commercial imagination. And in his second round as Apple's head (he resigned from the company in 1985 and, 10 years later, took up the reins of power again), he has overseen the translation of these individual characteristics into organizational capabilities that have become the bedrock of the company's competitive advantage. No other company in the consumer technology space is so consistently dedicated to understanding "what's next?" why and how this matters, and how to translate this understanding into appealing (yea, even beautiful), inspiring, and highly functional offerings.

Second, Jobs toggles easily--some might say seamlessly--between the small, relevant details of his company's products, services and channels and the larger strategic path on which his business is moving. His maniacal attention to anything affecting the functional integrity or aesthetic appeal of his offerings is legendary. For example, in 2001 when Jobs and his team decided to open Apple retail stores, he had his folks build a store prototype in a warehouse. Then he used the mock-up to overhaul the initial store layout, not to mention going through three kinds of lighting to ensure that the iMacs would shine as brightly in store as they did in print ads.

At the same time, Jobs has never taken his eye off the larger landscape and the enormous opportunities and challenges of the Information Revolution. Like Rockefeller and Carnegie, he has long understood that in a time of great transformation, much is up for grabs. And he has wasted no time positioning his company at important chokeholds in technology, music distribution, publishing, and other industries buffeted by disruptive innovation.

Finally, Jobs has long had an animating sense of mission about the company that he did so much to create more than 30 years ago and that he has done do much to shape as it (and he) have come of age. He has always believed that he and Apple were out to change the world, and this seems to drive him--more than money and market share and raw power.

About 15 years ago--way before the iPod and the tyranny of email-- he told Rolling Stone that the information superhighway would make the world a better place by allowing individuals to "do things that only large groups of people with lots of money could do before." "What that means is," he continued, "we have much more opportunity for people to get to the marketplace--not just the marketplace of commerce but the marketplace of idea. The marketplace of publications, the marketplace of public policy. You name it." (It is interesting to consider how prescient these words look in the wake of the iPad's introduction).

It is this leadership that has been an enormous source of gas and direction for Apple's successful journey.

By Nancy Koehn

 |  February 1, 2010; 3:48 PM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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