Do CEOs Matter?

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Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs announced in a brief email to Apple employees that he would be taking a leave of absence to focus on issues surrounding his health. Jobs has battled pancreatic cancer in the past, and his brief note to his staff mentioned virtually nothing about his upcoming departure from the company, only that he "will continue as CEO and to be involved in major strategic decisions."


So what does this mean for Apple? While tech journalists are scrambling to find meaning in Jobs' short farewell, a look back to the June 2009 issue of The Atlantic reveals that the hypothetical path of the profound inventor's absence is already well trodden:

Spare a thought, if you would, for the trials of the Apple shareholder. Like fretful parents at the bedside of an ailing child, investors have been wringing their hands over the health of Steve Jobs for nearly a year now--or even longer. The Apple Inc. CEO underwent surgery for a rare, treatable form of pancreatic cancer in 2004, and since then, the state of Jobs's health has nagged at shareholders, analysts, and cultists. To some observers, Jobs's fate and Apple's seem entangled beyond all untangling; last year, one analyst estimated that Apple would instantly lose a quarter of its market value were Jobs to leave, whether under his own steam or carried out on his shield. Jobs's doctors might as well append a chart of the company's stock price to his medical file, so closely do its spikes and dips track the chatter about his condition. 

Chronic investor anxiety over the Apple CEO turned acute last June, when an emaciated Jobs publicly addressed Apple's software developers. His appearance fanned worries that his cancer had returned. Unimpressed by the company's assertion that Jobs was merely suffering from "a common bug," investors rushed to sell their shares, knocking more than $4 off Apple's stock price in a day. About six weeks later, The New York Times, citing anonymous sources close to Jobs, reported that he had informed Apple's board of directors that he was cancer-free and had undergone an unspecified surgical procedure to address his weight loss. Apple shares popped 2.6 percent on the news. But relief turned to alarm again in August, when some hapless soul at Bloomberg.com accidentally posted a canned obituary of Jobs, sending traders into a tizzy until Bloomberg put out a somewhat cryptic retraction of its "incomplete" story.

While Jobs remains the face the Apple-driven wave of innovation that has turned consumer electronics upside down in the past several years, will his departure stymie the flow of cutting edge, almost magical gadgets hitting the shelves around the country? In his 2009 article, "Do CEOs Matter," Harris Collingwood wondered whether companies Apple could survive without creative muses Jobs.

Steve Jobs, Apple's ailing CEO, is scheduled to return to work this month after a six-month leave, but investors are feeling skittish. Every time he sneezes, shares of Apple catch a cold. Can a CEO--even one as talented and visionary as Jobs--really make or break a corporation? Many business scholars have grown skeptical of the idea of chief executive as superhero. Cutting-edge research reveals that while some CEOs clearly do make a big difference, many are merely the most visible cogs in complex machines.

Read the rest of Collingwood's "Do CEOs Matter?"
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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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