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Apple’s Tim Cook to Duke MBAs: ‘Write Your Own Rules’

Apple CEO Tim Cook in 2012

Photograph by Kimihiro Hoshino/AFP via Getty Images

Apple CEO Tim Cook in 2012

At a closed-door session with MBA students at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, Apple (AAPL) Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook dispensed some sage advice on ethical leadership, intuition, collaboration, and career planning.

Cook, a 1988 Fuqua grad, was on campus for his 25th reunion on April 26, when he took part in an hour-long dialogue with Fuqua Dean Bill Boulding. Video snippets of the event were recently posted to YouTube (GOOG). In one, Cook responds to a question from a student, who asked, “When is it OK to break the rules?”

Cook replied: “I think you should rarely follow the rules. I think you should write the rules. If you follow things in a formulaic manner, you will wind up at best being the same as everybody else. … If you want to excel you can’t do that. I watched a lot of companies do that, and I think that’s a rotten strategy. I think you need to write your own rules.”

At one point, Boulding reminded Cook about an assignment he was given as an MBA student a quarter century ago: to write a 25-year plan. “How’d that work out for you?” he asked. Cook, who discovered his yellowed copy of the plan a few years ago while preparing for a commencement address, remembered it well.

“I would say it was reasonably accurate for 18 to 24 months after it was written. There was not a single thing accurate past that. For me, the journey was not predictable at all.”

Lavelle is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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