Insight article

Tim Cook’s leadership story

This week's story strikes at the profundity of values that inform the actions of great leaders.

As a young boy in a small Alabama town, Tim Cook had an experience that continues to shape his leadership to this day. Cycling home past a black family’s house one afternoon, he saw a cross on fire, and a circle of hooded Klansmen around it.

He yelled “Stop”, and one of them turned around and lifted his hood. It was the deacon of a local church. Fast forward nearly half a century, Tim Cook is now the CEO of one of history’s most successful companies.

When he talks about what Apple does, he doesn’t just say it makes computers and phones. Instead, he draws from his personal experience, and articulates a “respect for human dignity” as Apple’s guiding principle. He sees Apple not as a tech company, but as one whose primary business is actually “advancing humanity”.

“Growing up in Alabama in the 1960s”, he said, “I saw the devastating impacts of discrimination. And it would change my life forever. For me, the cross-burning was a symbol of ignorance, of hatred, and a fear of anyone different than the majority.

“Regardless of the path that one chooses, there are fundamental commitments that should be a part of one’s journey. I found at Apple a company that deeply believed in advancing humanity – through its products and through the equality of all of its employees. Now much has changed since my early days at Apple. But these values, which are at the very heart of our company, remain the same.”

Cook explains how Apple’s engineers always strive to prevent people with disabilities from being left behind by technological advancement. “And we never, ever analyse the return on investment. We do it because it is just and right”.

Great leaders articulate compelling visions that set their company’s mission in the context of the wider world. This vision does not necessarily need to be as altruistic as Cook’s but it must be deeply felt – and communicated to the organisation in such a way that employees are inspired to share the journey.

Read more about great leadership in our new report: Leadership for the New World.

Nailia Tasseel