On Sunday, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave the commencement speech at Stanford University--the same stage where his former boss Steve Jobs appeared 14 years earlier.

Jobs gave Cook some mighty big shoes to fill. He'd transformed the world of computers, phones, music, mobility, and movies--and delivered one of the most famous commencement speeches of all time in 2005.

In Cook's speech to Stanford's 128th graduating class, Cook acknowledged the pressure he felt to fill the void that Jobs had left. Critics didn't give Cook a chance because, well, he wasn't Steve Jobs. "It was the loneliest I've ever felt in my life. By an order of magnitude," Cook said.

When the dust settled, Cook decided that he couldn't live to satisfy other people's expectations of how he would follow his mentor. All he knew was that he'd have to be best version of himself that he could be. And with that, he gave Stanford graduates a lesson in navigating life and their careers: If you want to be build something worthy, he said, "be different."

"Don't try to emulate the people who came before you to the exclusion of everything else... It takes too much mental effort, effort that should be dedicated to creating and building," Cook said.

Your difference is your strength

I recently spoke to Leander Kahney, author of the new book, Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level. Kahney told me that Cook's differences from Jobs were his strength. "Jobs had the vision to see where Apple could go, but Cook is leading the company to a new era of success," Kahney says.

Those differences are stamped everywhere. Cook has become a vocal advocate for privacy, environmental stewardship, LGBTQ rights, and fiscal discipline. Cook is the CEO who was at the helm when Apple became the first public company to reach $1 trillion in market value.

Being different often involves giving yourself permission to embrace the stories and experiences that make you stand out. In public-speaking, the worst thing you can do is try to look, act and sound like someone else. Be different and you'll stand out. 

Share the stories that make you different.

Sometimes, being different means embracing and sharing the stories that nobody else can tell. 

A few years ago, I met Bobby Herrera, a co-founder of a successful company that manages non-permanent workforces for large enterprises. Herrera didn't have a privileged background or a fancy degree--far from it. He grew up in a family of migrant workers and would spend hours in the fields after school. He joined the army after high school.

After Herrera read one of my books, he called me to tell me a personal story.

He and his brother played on their high school basketball team. One night after a game, the team bus stopped so the players could have dinner. Herrera and his brother stayed behind because they didn't have any money to pay for their meal. A parent of one of the other boys returned to the bus and said, "It would make me very happy if you would allow me to buy you dinner so you join the rest of the team. Nobody else has to know. All you have to do to thank me is to do the same thing for another great kid just like you."

Herrera did just that. When he co-founded his own company, he made volunteer work in the communities he serves a cornerstone of the company's mission.

"I'm sure all your employees have heard that story," I said.

"No. I've never told them."

"You should. It makes you different and explains your value system."

I often find that entrepreneurs and leaders need a nudge to highlight their differences. In some ways, they're looking for permission to share the experiences that make them unique. 

Tim Cook has a very different way of looking at the world--and the workplace--than Jobs did. Cook is collaborative and purpose-driven. It doesn't make him worse--it makes him different. And in that difference, he's found his strength.

Published on: Jun 17, 2019
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