There's a simple saying to explain the difference between a ship's skipper and its captain.
The skipper is the one at the helm steering the boat at that particular point in time, while the captain is always the captain even when he's passed out drunk below deck.
Samsung Electronics Co.' s Jay Y. Lee may not be drunk but the vice chairman and company heir is most certainly below deck, where he'll remain for as long as 18 months awaiting trial on charges of bribery, perjury and embezzlement.
While Samsung will probably appoint another skipper to steer the hulking freighter that is South Korea's largest company, the bigger question is whether Lee will remain captain from behind bars. Complicating matters further, the exact term of his absence is unknown; if convicted, Lee's detention could be substantially longer.
These aren't esoteric questions. As fellow Gadfly David Fickling wrote last month, the fact that Samsung would survive without Lee is "what makes him -- or someone like him -- paradoxically indispensable to the company as a whole."
Samsung has a deep bench of scientists, engineers, product designers, sales teams and of course managers, but they operate under the gaze of an ever-present monarch who steps in to dictate the ship's course.
The electronics business in which Samsung operates is among the fastest-changing, shortest product-cycle industries in the world. On the one hand it must churn out new smartphone models every quarter, on the other it has to constantly make multibillion-dollar decisions on technology and capacity that will impact the company for the coming three to five years.
A leader unbeholden to any one business unit can decide for the good of the company whether to put funds into more semiconductor factories or double-down on phones, buy a competitor or build a new team, give cash back or save it for a rainy day.
With that helmsman gone, or worse absent for a temporary and unspecified period, the role of final arbiter could hang in limbo. At least when a leader usually departs -- through death, dismissal or resignation -- a new one can step forward to chart the course for the long term.
And pity the person who does get to take over the helm. He or she will be tasked with safely skippering Samsung through a mighty storm, all the while aware that the captain is just below deck, in chains.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Tim Culpan in Taipei at firstname.lastname@example.org
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