Steve Jobs and the 1927 Yankees

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It’s pretty much a daily occurrence: I start the morning with my coffee and flip through the news, and there are almost always several stories with a headline that’s some variation of: “What would Steve have done?” “This isn’t Steve’s Apple.” “Steve Jobs would never have let [insert maps, iOS6, iPad mini, etc.] ship.” “Steve would never have fired (or alternatively would have fired) [insert name of departed Apple executive here].

In short, pretty much everyone out there seems to know exactly what Steve Jobs would or would not have done had he faced almost any situation the company faces now. Forget that most of these opinionators never met Mr. Jobs, never knew him in any way, never shipped a product under his leadership. (That said, there is a growing cadre of former Apple employees who worked there when Steve wasn’t but who are still quick to offer their opinions about him.)

Forget even the fact that not every single product that Apple shipped under Steve’s leadership from 1997 to 2011 was perfect. (Of course, in the end it matters only that Apple was far more right than wrong in what it shipped.) There’s actually a more important issue: What does it matter what Steve Jobs might or might not have done? The question is meaningless.

There’s a great dialogue in one of my favorite TV shows, Sports Night. The lead character is asked by a viewer, “If the 1927 New York Yankees team played the 1998 New York Yankees team in the World Series, who’d win?.” He replies, “Leonard, get a grip. The World Series, by tradition, is contested by two different teams made up of players that are alive at the same time. But if you want an answer to your question, my guess is that the ’27 Yankees would be confounded by the jet airplanes flying overhead.”

The market is not the market of a year ago. The challenges Apple faces are not the challenges of a year ago. The result is that Apple today must not be the Apple of a year ago either. The question “What would Steve have done?” is, fundamentally, the wrong one. No one will ever know what Jobs might or might not have done under today’s market conditions.

I’ve written in the past that Apple’s greatest challenge is to learn to fight legends. I still think that’s true. I also believe—unlike many others—that Apple should not be asking what Steve Jobs would have done in a given situation. That, in my opinion, is almost surely a recipe for disaster: A company and management team that would always be second-guessing itself, living in the shadow of a leader who has become more myth than man, and constantly risking the danger of looking to the past instead of looking toward the future.

Steve is gone from Apple. The clear sentiment expressed by many is that he is missed and that his influence will be felt for generations to come. But as my grandfather was fond of saying, “The cemeteries are fill of people who couldn’t be replaced.”

That said, the only question that matters today is, “What are the best moves Tim Cook can make with his management team to drive Apple forward?” One can debate the moves Apple has made in the last year or the design choices it made in products. But the only metric that will matter will be how well those products are received by consumers. If they are received well, then I’m fairly certain we can say Steve would indeed have approved.

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