As I was reading comments from Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) CEO Tim Cook about the new iPhone 5 -- "thinnest, lightest, fastest" -- I couldn't help but think of Frances Gumm, Archie Leach, and Marion Morrison.
A question crept into my consciousness. If the founder of Apple had been named Tim Cook rather than Steve Jobs, would the whole outfit have amounted to a hill of beans? Color me dubious.
I mean, picture, if you can, someone called Frances Gumm singing "Over the Rainbow" in The Wizard of Oz, or mooning yearningly into James Mason's eyes in A Star Is Born. Can't do it, can you? No spark, no thrill. But if the girl doing that singing and mooning is Judy Garland, well... chills up and down your spine!
And if director Henry Hathaway had picked someone named Marion Morrison to play Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, what then? Very likely, everybody coming out of the theater would be asking one another, "who was the huge, manly woman in the eye patch?" But change Marion's name to John Wayne -- which Morrison did long before True Grit -- and there is no gender confusion. And several generations of insecure American men have a role model they can't let go of.
And Archie Leach? Wisely, he became Cary Grant. Likewise, when you think about the superstar among all the stars, past and present, of consumer electronics, the first name that comes to everyone's mind is the same: Steve Jobs -- a moniker to reckon with. Tim Cook? Not so much.
So, I've got to ask? Can a super company founded by a superstar continue to be faster than a locomotive, leaping tall buildings with a single bound? Or is it destined now, inevitably, to shrink bit by bit 'til it's just Clark Kent with nothing under his suit but underwear?
If you think I'm suggesting that Tim Cook adopt a more impressive nom de guerre, you're right. Perhaps a name vaguely European and autocratic like Augustus DeHuister, or scholarly like Garrett Huxley, or something just more manly, Anglo-Saxon, and suggestively futuristic. Say, for instance, "Flash Gordon."
Just think of the typical post-Tim Cook press release: "Wearing a pair of form-fitting jet-propelled, silver-titanium boots that he touted as 'the next big thing in personal mobility,' " Apple CEO Flash Gordon literally flew into a press conference today in Hollywood, announcing his arrival two minutes in advance -- directly into the minds of the collected media -- through Apple's new 3-D HD Nano-tech brain-implanted iPhone X-27.
"Greetings, earthlings, and pardon my biodegradable jet exhaust," said Gordon to a cheering throng of rapturous reporters...
OK, there's a serious point here. Companies with powerful and charismatic leaders -- whose personal style is unique and impossible to replicate -- leave behind, when they leave, a dilemma of identity and continuity for their companies. Although a company like Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) today continues to make stuff, sell stuff, employ people, and trade shares on the New York Stock Exchange, today's version of HP is a stumblebum mockery of the widely admired, employee-friendly, and iconic organization that grew up under Bill Hewlett and David Packard.
Likewise, Japan's Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE), which became a household name under the guidance of a charming, self-promoter, benevolent tyrant and shameless peacock named Akio Morita, has faded steadily from prominence since Morita's demise in 1999.
Indeed, you could make a successful parlor game of listing companies that shriveled and dithered after their version of Don Corleone retired or died, leaving a void that required a comparably overwhelming personality. There just ain't that many Al Pacinos out there.
Even Apple, when the already legendary Steve Jobs hit the streets in 1985 -- returning as his old company's savior a decade later -- provided a classic example of a star-crossed startup whose superstar walked off with all the stardust. We know that, despite the stock sell-off that followed Steve Jobs's death, Apple will probably thrive for years on the offspring products spawned from the Jobs regime, like the iPad mini (which looks eerily similar to Amazon's Kindle).
But, last question: Can Apple, under the conventional leadership of a bland-sounding, charisma-challenged, apparently nice guy named Tim, reverse its current stasis and launch a second renaissance as the company every other company wishes it were?
Think of it this way: In a screen-test contest between Frances Gumm and Judy Garland, which starlet would you bet on?