Perusing Apple’s (AAPL) quarterly earnings and commentary, I am almost moved to tears. This is unusual, I know, to feel the romance of strategy and long-term planning, more so than of the iPad per se; to root for the game plan, and cheer its execution, more so than the buzzer beater. But maybe others can relate, maybe now more than ever, when Goldman Sachs (GS) has otherwise dominated the news with spectacular clunkers off the rim. It is beautiful to watch Apple in action.
Legal and ethical issues aside, which will take years to resolve and then some, the opposing scenarios of success and trouble – at Apple and Goldman respectively – could be the subject of simpler debate having to do with business fundamentals. As an outsider looking in, from the last row in the arena, where the guy in front of me keeps leaning forward to obstruct my view, (even with binoculars), I see the outline of something on the court that has to do with leadership.
At least in the limited world of the media sector, looking back as well as ahead, one comes to realize the extent to which Apple is central. If there had been no iPod, no iTunes, no iPhone, now no iPad, (and soon no iAds)… perhaps somebody else would have invented these products? I don’t know… perhaps, or maybe not. Maybe the alternative products would have been less appealing, or maybe designed and packaged in a different way with different mass market impact. Who can say?
But we can safely acknowledge that the vast new opportunities and modes of communication born out of Apple’s platform have not been accidental. And while speculating on hypothetical causes and imaginary effects is insubstantial, we should at the very least give recognition where it is due: Leadership based on vision and long-term planning has been at the root of Apple’s exploding franchise in the past ten years – just as leadership had everything to do with the rise of Microsoft (MSFT) before it, and Amazon (AMZN) as a new retail category when e-commerce hardly existed. In each of these case studies, there is (or was) a visionary and inspiring chief, who commanded the confidence not only of his own, but in a certain sense of competitors as well.
In each case, these executives had the foresight to see a long way out, and to produce objects of lasting value, that changed the course of markets.
The difficult question that begins to take shape, and that may be read in the contrasting scenario at Goldman, has to do with the nature of leadership that would emerge when an industry has matured, but when the pace of competition is no less frenzied than the Internet was and still is.
This profile of maturity in combination with frenzied competition can be an awful blend, when you stop to consider. And even as the Internet may be entering an era of improvement on the margin rather than turning the world on its head, driven by skimming off the trade and tinkering around the edges, the economic upside may become less a matter of vision than execution. In this scenario, one wonders about the fate of captainship and its profile.
The next generation of entrepreneurs, perhaps, will be populated less by the dreamy than the staunchly pragmatic. We may begin to see lesser attentiveness to long-term strategy than to immediate effect, and lesser motive in the invention than the competitive edge. Perhaps Facebook is a good example of the newer style, and maybe the Goldman Sachs story did not unfold as a matter of good and evil, but a new business reality that reflects sector maturity and a race to the finish line simultaneously.
In this scenario, Apple’s quarterly results may come as a throwback to another time, but may also serve as a reminder that visionary leadership still holds a special place after all, regardless of circumstance.
Disclosure: No positions.