I think it's fair to say that Tim Cook knows a little something about leadership. He leads the most valuable company on earth--Apple--which is worth more than $2 trillion, has over 145,000 employees, and is known for creating some of the most innovative products of the past few decades. It's a big job.
Under Cook's leadership, Apple has also been a champion of user privacy, something he says is a "fundamental human right." For example, the company has recently required app developers to provide users with detailed information about any data they collect or share with third parties. It also announced that the next update to iOS 14 will require developers to request permission before they can track users.
Of course, Apple's commitment to privacy goes back much further than a software change. The company makes its money by selling premium devices and services, not advertisements. As a result, it doesn't track what its users do, nor does it target them with ads based on their activity.
That has put it in an increasingly hostile battle with fellow tech giant Facebook, which has openly criticized Apple's upcoming changes to iOS as an attack on small businesses. Facebook even took a shot at Apple during its quarterly earnings call last week, saying:
"Apple has every incentive to use their dominant platform position to interfere with how our apps and other apps work, which they regularly do. They say they are doing this to help people, but the moves clearly track their competitive interests."
That's an interesting take on what is essentially a move by Apple to give users a choice over whether they want to be tracked by apps. If that's a threat to your business model, it's probably not Apple's fault. It's probably just a bad business model.
In fact, Cook shared a few thoughts about that business model, and it's not only a powerful lesson in leadership, but I also suspect it's one he hopes Facebook's founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is paying attention to.
In a speech for International Data Privacy Day, Tim Cook called out Facebook, even without mentioning the company by name:
If a business is built on misleading users, on data exploitation, on choices that are not choices at all, it does not deserve our praise, it deserves reform.
That's a sharp criticism, but Cook doesn't leave it at those harsh words. Instead, he gives a framework that leaders should use for every decision they make:
Too many are still asking the question "How much can we get away with?" when they should be asking "What are the consequences?"
That's a powerful question.
Facebook is one of the most efficient profit-making machines ever. It simply collects information about its users and monetizes it in a highly sophisticated way. Those users hand over all of that information without any real awareness of what's happening.
Sure, people have a vague awareness that Facebook makes money by selling ads. Usually, however, the only time they think about it is when it seems creepy that the ad you just saw on Facebook is for the pair of shoes you were looking at earlier on a different site.
Beyond "creepy," however, most people don't really stop and consider that almost everything they do online is being tracked by the social media giant in the service of what it calls "personalized ads." The thing is, if your users have no idea what you're doing, you can probably get away with a lot. That doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.
At the same time, if you obscure the way you track their information, and object to someone else telling them about it, I think it's fair to say you're more concerned with what you can get away with than you are with doing the right thing.
A good rule is that if you'd never get away with something if people knew what you were really doing, it's just a bad idea. You shouldn't do it. Your goal should never be to try to get away with as much as you can.
Instead, your job is to recognize that every decision you make as a business owner has consequences. Just because no one fully understands the consequences of having their personal information collected, tracked, analyzed, and profiled, it doesn't mean those consequences don't exist.
And, just because users aren't objecting, it doesn't make it right.
Far too often, too many leaders look for the boundary of what they know is right and try to figure out how they can stretch that line just a little further without getting called out for it. Instead, Cook says every leader should be asking about the consequences.
Essentially, he's suggesting that your first question should be "What's the effect of this thing I'm about to do? Will it be positive or negative?"
That means recognizing that the decisions you make have consequences, even if they aren't always easy to see. As a leader, that's your most important job.