Tim Cook performed brilliantly in front of Congress today. He was authoritative, in breathtaking command of his facts, as he always is, and brought a unique perspective to each response. Senator Levin was out for blood, but "No one laid a glove on him," as Phillip Emer DeWitt wrote for Fortune. He put his questioners to shame. His response to the question of whether Apple was violating basic rules of fairness was brilliant: "I am a fair person. Apple is a fair company. I would not administer [something that was unfair.]" This is no dime-a-dozen MBA or supply-chain guy. This is a man of unique character and exceptional intelligence with an opportunity to make his own mark, not just on Apple, but on history.
There are a few important things that he could do a this point in his tenure that I believe would advance his movement toward that destiny in a big way.
Make a Self-Deprecating Joke
Tim Cook is the stiffest scripted presenter since Neil Armstrong. But most people aren't bothered by that. What bores them is his unconsciousness about it. If Tim simply let people know that he knows he's a lousy presenter he'd instantly be a better presenter. He should start out WWDC with a killer self-deprecating routine acknowledging how stiff he is. Mock himself. People would love it. They would love him.
Run a Great Ad Series
Apple needs to get brave and bold and fun with its advertising again. Maybe it revives the Mac vs. PC campaign, but make it iOS vs. Android, and destroy Android over the inability to get the latest software updates, the malware problems, the privacy issues, the lack of ability to easily synch all of your content to all of your devices, the freeze-ups, the cheesy product lanches, etc. Alternatively, get inspirational and move people with the difference Apple products make in the lives of the blind, poor children in rural schools, entrepreneurs in the developing world. The medium is the message, and a bold company cannot stay cautious with its creative. Tim has to lead this charge.
Stop Delegating Big Announcements to Others
Tim has taken the delegating thing too far. Product announcements are the setting for the leader of the organization to demonstrate their excitement about the product and to make the argument for the product. When Tim delegates every element of the keynotes to his Senior VPs, and just bookends the keynote with opening and closing remarks, he can come across as dispassionate about the products, and illiterate on how they integrate with the overall Apple story and how they integrate with his vision.
Steve Jobs was like a litigator at a keynote — he made arguments — he made irrefutable cases for how the current class of products sucks, why they suck, what the fundamental problem is, and then he showed how Apple was going to fix it. He didn't just say he was going to delight customers, he deconstructed how Apple would do it by taking them on an argumentative odyssey in which Apple was always the hero there to slay the dragons of mediocrity. It showed that he cared about delighting customers because he understood what frustrated them. That made him human to his customers, and for all his aloofness, Apple fans could relate to Steve Jobs because he showed them that he empathized with their problems.
Tim Cook has to do the same thing. He has to show that he uses the products. That's his job. This delegation of major product announcements — wholesale — to others is either lazy or it's based on a misguided sense of how you motivate your reports.
Make the Distinction Between Product Design and the Design of the Future
Product design and future design are two different things. Jony Ive can design the products of the future, but he can't design the future of the company. Imagine President Kennedy hiring a "Chief of Vision," instead of providing the vision himself. Tim Cook has to contemplate what his vision is for the future of Apple and he should stage a major event to articulate it.
Don't Worry About Being Liked
Steve Jobs' vision wasn't his only strong suit. His willingness to fight for that vision and to be disliked if that's what it took to make that vision real was as valuable as the vision itself. The sense of possibility that he emanated didn't just show up in a new product. It showed up in his ability to get the product out the door six months earlier than anyone said it could be done. And he didn't make that happen by worrying about being liked. At every level he showed people that human beings were capable of something more. He didn't do that by appealing to their lazier angels. Delighting customers also means showing people that real things can get done, and get done much faster than they get done by all of the other companies that frustrate them in their lives — you know, the companies that are forever showing concept products that people love but that never make it to market. And to get things done like that, you have to mess with that inherent human tendency to slow things down. People don't like it, until you show them what they're really capable of. They might dislike you today. But they'll love you in the long run.
There is zero reason — zero reason — that Tim Cook cannot earn a place in the pantheon of great American business leaders. But to do it, he's going to have to stretch outside of his comfort zone.