Is Steve Jobs Irreplaceable As Apple's CEO?

Apple announced this week that Steve Jobs is taking another leave of absence for health reasons. The constant refrain is that Jobs is, in many ways, irreplaceable as Apple CEO. Host Melissa Block speaks to Michael Useem, director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, to find out what makes a CEO irreplaceable.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

A big story in business has been Apple's announcement yesterday that Steve Jobs is taking another leave of absence for health reasons. In an email to employees, he said he will continue as CEO, and he hopes to be back as soon as he can. But that uncertainty has led to this question: Is Steve Jobs irreplaceable as the CEO of Apple?

To help us with that question, we're joined now by Michael Useem. He's director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

Professor MICHAEL USEEM (Director, Center for Leadership and Change Management, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania): Thank you. Good to be here.

BLOCK: And what do you think about that, Professor Useem? Steve Jobs, is he irreplaceable? As we mentioned, he has taken leaves of absence before.

Prof. USEEM: Well, Steve Jobs, obviously, has been vital to the growth of Apple from what it was when he took over a second time back in 1987. He created the company earlier, left for a couple of years, came back in '87. It was almost bankrupt at the time.

And now, some 24 years later, the company has become one of the great companies of the world, has a market value over $300 billion, and so much of that is arguably a direct product of Steve's ability to pick what people will need even though if they don't know they want it right now. Few on Earth are as good as what he's been able to create along those lines.

Just by way of summary, here's a dreamer and innovator who is also a doer and executor, and so he is a kind of creative and business genius at the same time.

BLOCK: You said few on Earth could do what he's done. Would it be the mark, though, of a great executive to make sure that there are people behind you who can do what you've done and do it just as well?

Prof. USEEM: Yes, for sure. In the sense that if you become a chief executive of a large firm, from day one, one of your obligations is to begin to build a bench below you. And the essence of the leadership of any large company, like Apple, is to mentor, to coach and to build that capacity in people around you.

So, hopefully, Mr. Jobs has been providing a kind of a class, a tutorial to the top people that he's worked with on how to run that company even if he can't be there every day.

BLOCK: When Steve Jobs took medical leave before, Apple did just fine. Do you think there's any chance that this is really a myth that's been created about Steve Jobs, that he is irreplaceable, that the company is Steve Jobs and can't really be the same company without him?

Prof. USEEM: Yeah. I think it is a myth to say that anybody is irreplaceable, especially if it's a big organization like Apple. It's not a one-person show. It's a show of many personalities and many leaders. And in that sense, Steve has been somewhat unique in that his talent has really stood out much more so than in many other companies, comparing CEO to CEO.

Having said that, this top he's put in place, hopefully, should have kind of built into their DNA at this point an ability to think strategically, to anticipate where the consumer products market is going to be going.

BLOCK: Michael Useem, thank you very much.

Prof. USEEM: Thank you.

BLOCK: Michael Useem is director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

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