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Tim Cook and the Power of the 'Quiet' CEO

Why you don't have to be loud to be a great leader.
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"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss," is the most damning of rock lyrics. It's a pithy indictment by The Who's Pete Townshend, from the 1971 hit "Won't Get Fooled Again."

I think about this lyric whenever I read a profile of Apple CEO Tim Cook. Typically, these profiles compare the quietly effective Cook to his incomparably charismatic predecessor, Steve Jobs. They imply that it is a grievous misfortune that Cook is a different person than Jobs was. Like the world is going to end, if Apple doesn't produce a groundbreaking, cool-looking device in the next six months. 

In other words: Cook, markedly, is not "the same as the old boss."

But instead of celebrating his differences, the general tenor of stories on the Jobs-Cook succession is that Apple, sans Jobs, is struggling to find its next home-run product.

"Michael A. Cusumano, a professor in the Sloan School of Management at M.I.T., said he thought Apple no longer had the juice to create the world-beating product it needs," noted a recent New York Times profile of Cook. "'Jobs would figure out how to put the pieces together,' Professor Cusumano said. 'Everything just filtered through his eyes.'"

The Case for Quiet Leadership

Cusumano could be right. But what I dislike about many Jobs-Cook comparisons is the implication that (a) new leaders should be just like their "old boss" predecessors; (b) creative temperament (often euphemized as "charismatic") beats quietly contemplative (often disparaged as lacking charisma).  

As it happens, there are several advantages that quietly contemplative leaders enjoy. Here are two of them:

1. Avoiding the "CEO Megaphone" Effect. Some CEOs are "fantastic visionaries and seem to have a constant (often what feels like endless!) stream of ideas flowing from their brains," notes venture capitalist Seth Levine on his VC Adventure blog. "And because they're often gregarious people they're not shy about sharing this idea stream."

So what’s the problem? "Often," continues Levine, "this idea flow isn't accompanied by any metadata and the lack of context can sometimes lead to companies zig-zagging around as managers react to the most recent meeting they've had with their visionary boss."

Levine's term for this effect is the "CEO Megaphone." It basically means that when CEOs speak, their words get unduly amplified because of their lofty standing in the organization. For CEOs--and really, for all leaders--the upshot is the need to watch what you say (and to whom you say it). You might be speaking off the cuff. You might be throwing creative, big-picture ideas against the wall. But your employees might take your words for gospel since you are, after all, the boss. 

You can see how quietly contemplative leaders are less at risk for misleading employees via the CEO megaphone. They are not the high-concept, visionary leaders who need to talk out loud, in order to process their ideas. They keep their thoughts inside. Jonathan Ive, the head of design at Apple, told the Times that Cook projects "quiet consideration," taking his time to digest and react to whatever he learns.

2. Enhancing the George Washington Effect. Sam Bacharach, author and the McKelvey-Grant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, believes that the best leaders use silence as a "tactical tool" and a source of authority.

One of his primary examples is Washington. According to Washington's biographer, Joseph Ellis, the first president had "the ability to remain silent above any occasion while all around him were 'squirming under the social pressure to fill the silence with chatty conversation.' Here, his silence permitted him to preside above the contentious debates."

Bacharach notes that whenever Washington is discussed in his leadership workshops, someone invariably points out that Washington wasn't the deepest intellectual in the room, compared to Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, etc. But Bacharach argues that Washington simply grasped silence as a tactic. "What is the role of a leader? Often, it is to collect information, integrate information, and bring about a certain sense of harmony," he writes.

"To do that, leaders have to know how to create the gentle gaps of silence that Washington did between himself and his colleagues."

Whether Cook does the same thing at Apple, only insiders know. But given what we've learned about his temperament and style, it's certainly possible. 

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Jun 16, 2014




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