Until Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, the company was directionless and dabbling in a variety of areas. Its main product line, Macintosh computers, tottered at around three percent of the PC market. While attempts were made to break into new areas, including digital cameras and handheld computers, the products were not well-implemented and failed. The Mac business was falling behind the competition. For example, Apple was late to market building CD drives into notebooks, thinking it was a passing fad. I know this from personal experience, being part of the Newton and PowerBook teams.
Like many large corporations, there was intense infighting among the various divisions, with no one to referee. So not only was there no clear roadmap and underperforming products, but the organization was in disarray.
When Jobs returned he applied an intense focus to turn around the business. He cut products, including the Newton, and prioritized on building the core foundation of the company, revamping and improving the Mac platform and working with Intel to enable the Mac to run Windows. While few customers wanted to use Windows, it was marketing brilliance that took the risk out of buying a Mac.
He also revamped his organization and created a team that has been stellar in each of their areas of expertise: engineering, operations and industrial design. Jobs and his organization transformed the product lineup to one with no equal, iPods, iTunes, iPhones, iPads and Macs.
This team has coalesced around Jobs and has been intensely loyal to him, much like to a benevolent dictator. He single-handedly has been providing the organizational and the product leadership.
I observed a similar situation when I worked at Polaroid when Dr. Edwin Land led the company. Polaroid and Land, the inventor of instant photography, received similar admiration from the business community and the public. In fact, the two leaders share much in common, from being intimately involved in the design of every new product, to mesmerizing audiences when they each introduced them.
But when Land left the company, it began to disintegrate because there was a sudden lack of strong leadership. Under Dr. Land any innovation that didn't come from him was discouraged. In fact, when he learned that one of his engineers was designing an improvement for the SX-70 camera, he threatened to fire him. (That engineer was me; in the end we shared the patent on that invention).
Because of Land's top-down leadership, the executives under him were rewarded for the execution of his vision and not for innovating on their own. This left a weak and unimaginative leadership when he left.
There was no succession plan, and those left behind competed to fill his role, constantly bickered, and failed to agree on how to enter the digital camera revolution. The company eventually went into bankruptcy.