What Can Business Leaders Learn from Tim Cook?

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple

Following the passing of legendary tech visionary Steve Jobs in 2011, it was apparent that the next CEO of Apple would have sizeable shoes to fill.

Indeed, many market analysts believed that whoever his successor was, they would never be able to emulate Jobs' success as head of one of the world's most popular brands. After all, Jobs was a visionary who changed the world with iconic products such as the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. How could that be topped?

Well, nearly a decade after his appointment, the numbers suggest that Tim Cook – the man who took on that impossible role – has comfortably exceeded expectations.

Tim Cook's Leadership Style

Don’t believe us? Well, take a look at Apple’s latest performance figures.

In August 2020, Apple's market capitalisation hit $1.95 trillion, while the stock has weathered the Coronavirus-induced storm clouds by rallying more than 55%. At the time of writing, it is only a few percentage points away from hitting $2 trillion. The company continues to release much-anticipated products, and the brand remains one of the most valuable in the international marketplace. 

All of this has been made possible by Cook's blend of risk-taking, sharp focus, and stellar listening skills, demonstrating that he is a shrewd, assured, and business-minded CEO. But there is so much more to his management style than posting impressive financials, as we will explore below.

Curriculum Vitae

Age: 59

Born: Mobile, AL, USA

Education: Auburn University, BS Industrial Engineering (1982) | Duke University, MBA (1988)

Work: IBM: Various roles, culminating in Director of Fulfillment for North America (1982-94) | Intelligent Electronics: COO (1994-97) | Compaq: Vice President of Corporate Materials (1997-98) | All Apple: Senior Vice President of Worldwide Operations (1998-02) | Executive Vice President of Worldwide Operations (2002-05) | COO (2005-11) | CEO (2011-Present)

Leadership and Management Style

On the surface – and from his public remarks – you would not necessarily believe that Cook himself is a risk-taker, but he understands that Apple needs to take risks to succeed. "We take risks knowing that risks will sometimes result in failure," he claimed in a recent interview, "but without the possibility of failure there is no possibility of success". The iWatch is a perfect example of a risky Apple endeavour, but it is one that has certainly proved a worthwhile bet.

Many reports also highlight Cook's subdued behaviour, whether it is during meetings with staff or when researching the latest technologies. Articles portray Cook as somebody who focuses and listens attentively to anyone who is speaking to him, a characteristic that dates back to his college days at Auburn University.

Meanwhile, direct comparisons to his predecessor are inevitable. Jobs is generally acknowledged as having been an authoritarian leader, constantly driving standards and demanding more from his staff. Cook, by all accounts, is the opposite, preferring a more democratic approach and looking to leverage the knowledge and experience of those around him. This makes sense; Apple hires the best of the best, and as Jobs himself ironically once said, the company hires smart people "to tell us what to do".

Perhaps his greatest strength in this regard is his resolution to stick to his own principles and style, rather than trying to emulate what has gone before. He is perceived as humble, admits his mistakes, remains transparent, and refuses to overthink things. Cook's philosophy is that if something has been done well, then you should continue what you are doing, and if it hasn't, then you should take ownership of the failure. The Apple Maps project is a good example of this philosophy in practice, with Cook apologising for its shortcomings and telling Apple's customers in an online letter that the service "fell short" of its commitment. 

So many people, particularly, I think, CEOs and top executives, they get so planted in their old ideas, and they refuse or don't have the courage to admit that they're now wrong. Maybe the most underappreciated thing about Steve was that he had the courage to change his mind. And you know – it's a talent. It's a talent.

Tim Cook

As a progressive tech giant, Cook demands more than the superficial diversity of many Silicon Valley competitors, too, instead emphasising the need for diversity “of thought” and “of style”. This management approach is on par with Apple's fundamental values, and perfectly illustrates how Cook has continued the consistency of Apple's leadership while still remaining his own man. Jobs may have a been a larger-than-life pioneer, while Cook is a more subdued individual, and yet they both represent the very best of Apple through their respective forms of leadership.


Being the head of the first US company to hit the trillion-dollar valuation mark is an impressive feat all by itself, but it's not just in the stock market that Cook is winning over the doubters.

He has overseen a drastic restructuring of the Apple Services division, which includes Apple Care, Apple Pay, the App Store, iCloud and Apple Music. This business area has seen double-digit growth in the last few years, with many calling it the biggest achievement of his tenure so far.

He has also transformed the fortunes of the iWatch, following a lukewarm reception upon its release in 2014. Indeed, despite some early hiccups, Apple is now – incredibly – the world's largest watchmaker.

Arguably his biggest achievement, though – even though it may seem benign to consumers – is his relationship with his employees. No matter who they are, Cook maintains an open-door policy and fervently encourages a collaborative environment at Cupertino. The numbers – and the unusually high esteem in which Cook is held by Apple staff – suggest that his policy works.

Key Numbers

While many market experts initially anticipated a crash in Apple stock following Jobs' passing, the reality has been somewhat different. During Cook's tenure, Apple has enjoyed the best numbers it has ever posted. Through the singular lens of financial performance, Cook is undoubtedly one of the best and most effective executives in the world today:

  • Stock: $46.50 (2010) to $464.35 (present (record high))
  • Dividends: $0 (2010) to $0.82 (present)
  • Market Capitalisation: $295bn (2010) to $1.97 trillion (present)
  • Revenue Growth: $76.73bn (2010) to $260.174bn (2019)
  • Net Income: $16.369bn (2010) to $63.930bn (2019)
  • Number of Employees: 49,400 (2010) to 137,000 (present)


Cook has been somewhat tight-lipped about the direct influences on his leadership style. It is more than likely that Jobs was an influential figure in Cook's professional development, given their close relationship, but the contrasting elements of their respective approaches has not seen this implemented in practice.

However, there are several books that Cook has recommended in the past, which he says have shaped him as both a person and a business leader. They provide incredible insight into everything from time management to gender equality, to leadership in Silicon Valley:

  • Competing Against Time| George Jr. Stalk
  • Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon| Larry Tye
  • Mohandas K. Gandhi, Autobiography| Mahatma Gandhi
  • March| John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
  • Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley's Bill Campbell| Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle 
  • Full Force: Why The World Works Better When Girls Go To School| Malala Fund


It is safe to say that Tim Cook does not get the credit he deserves, but arguably, he would not have it any other way. The numbers speak for themselves, and as the head of a company, he understands that the most important things are your people, your products, and your customers. It is not about you, but rather what you can enable others to do, and that is a valuable leadership lesson in itself.

Key Takeaways

  • Always pay attention and listen – don't just tune out and pretend to hear what other people are saying
  • Assert your own ideas and philosophies, but in matters of expertise, cede authority to those who possess the knowledge and experience that you do not
  • Encourage input and ideas from all levels of your organisation
  • Take ownership and responsibility for your own mistakes, as well as the wider mistakes of your company

What aspect of Tim Cook's leadership style would you implement in your business? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.