Steve Jobs is back all over the media and movie screens these days – as Hollywood portrays its take of his genius and his warts. At the end of the day (not the movie), Jobs’ greatest notoriety may indeed be elevating Tim Cook to be his successor. Not because of the product rollout Cook has presided over, though that in itself is quite impressive. Rather, Tim Cook gets it. He really does. For the past year he has been sharing online, in speeches, and in interviews his views on online privacy. Cook’s words are biting, iconic, and hit the bullseye.
This is heroic, bold, and unprecedented in corporate America, and is this regard, Cook is just as Jobs was. Whereas many other leading technology companies in the world, you know who you are Google and Facebook, bring up the [privacy] topic with data charts and policy smokescreens to satisfy regulators and deceive consumers, Cook truly believes what he is saying and the importance of the issue. In fact, that seems to be most of what he wants to talk about these days. Yes, the man runs the world’s largest company courtesy of Jobs. But in contrast to several other technology CEOs, that doesn’t make him any less human. In fact in this instance, if anything it makes him more, because he’s tying his beliefs into the fiber of what is one of America’s greatest companies.
Look at how his message and thinking have evolved over the past twelve months. It’s like he has climbed a mountain in a quest for enlightenment. He started with a simple enough message posted online:
“We sell products. We don’t build a profile based on your email content or web browsing habits to sell to advertisers….We don’t monetize the information you store…We don’t read your email or messages to get information to market to you.”
From a business perspective, Cook was making a not-so-subtle dig at Google and their online privacy issues, which is why the news feeds ran with the Apple versus Google headlines. It was a savvy move, getting out ahead of his major competitors on the issue and placing his company on the side of good. Apple doesn’t sell people out he was telling us. They just sell iPhones, iPads, and any other product that starts with a lower case “i.”
Google Executive Chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt naturally got pissed off. But that wasn’t Cook’s intent. He was planting the seeds for a conversation he wanted to take to the people. Cook could see the writing on the wall. Read the polls. There are a lot of them and they all show overwhelming concern about privacy and uniform demand for protection. That’s why Zuckerberg and Facebook started talking about it. That’s why Google did as well. They want to maintain and grow their customer base.
Flash forward about six months later. Cook, accepting an award at the 2015 Champions of Freedom Dinner, uses the moment to simultaneously reflect inward and outward to the world:
“If those of us in positions of responsibility fail to do everything in our power to protect the right of privacy, we risk something far more valuable than money–we risk our way of life . . .”
Did you notice he never mentions Apple in that statement? Yes, we all know who pays his check. But Cook took business out of the equation. “We risk our way of life.” He’s not talking capitalism anymore. He’s talking humanity, that je ne sais quoi that makes us people and most important, individuals. You won’t find Schmidt or Zuckerberg talking about that unless forced to in interviews or by shareholders.
Also interesting was his willingness to take on culpability. The “we” is less about Apple and more about business leaders, he being one of them. He’s not antagonizing as much as asking others to join. That’s a bigger statement than any dollar sign could ever be.
Now flash forward another six months to the end of the too-hot dog days of summer in 2015. Cook sits down to an interview with a NPR reporter who drills him for details about Cook’s privacy kick. Cook takes another perspective:
“We do think that people want us to help them keep their lives private. We see that privacy is a fundamental human right that people have. We are going to do everything that we can to help maintain that trust . . .”
The “we” here is now about him and his company. He has come full circle in the outlining of his company’s practices to his personal beliefs and then tying the two together. It’s not about Apple and monetization. It’s about him projecting his beliefs into his company’s mission statement and products. The points he makes aren’t fundamentally new. He says privacy is built by design into their products. He says “you” the consumer control your own data. This is very much in alignment with the Conscious Capitalism movement gaining momentum around the world, spearheaded by the remarkable Raj Sisodia. These are the same points I have been raising for several years and have taken action about by launching an innovative new social network, MeWe, with privacy and respect for all of its members.
Tim Cook speaks many important truths in every bite:
“Our view on this comes from a values point of view, not from a commercial interest point of view. Our values are that we do think that people have a right to privacy.”
Those are words we can all live by. I have met Tim Cook and he is the real deal. I admire and respect him for leading this privacy charge among the whining big boys and girls in Silicon Valley, at the risk of friendships and strategic relationships. There truly is a higher, more important role for all executives and Cook points the way. I recall taking an Ethics Course at UCLA while getting my MBA, and I argued every day with the professor regarding what constituted being ethical. To him, an executive was ethical by strict adherence to whatever the current laws of the land decree. I said “no!” Ethics are larger indeed; they involve doing the right thing, regardless of and going beyond statute, and not sweeping something under the proverbial rug if it might upset the business apple cart.
Steve Jobs handpicked Tim Cook to lead Apple, and by doing so, he may have left his most important mark on human civilization for years to come. Bravo Steve!
Originally featured at Huff Post.