Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) CEO Tim Cook has officially held the reins for nearly three years. His interim assignment quickly escalated into an official role in tandem with Steve Jobs' deteriorating condition, eventually culminating in Cook being named CEO on Aug. 24, 2011.
While three years is a rather short period to issue broad judgments of corporate executives, especially at a company as large as Apple, it's an apt time to evaluate Cook's progress thus far. And for comparison, there are two former Apple CEOs who come to mind: Steve Jobs and John Sculley. The former is considered one of the best businessmen ever, and the latter has a place among the worst CEOs in American history.
A tale of two CEOs
John Sculley has a special place among Apple fandom – and it isn't a good place. Many among the Apple faithful consider Sculley something of a modern-day Judas Iscariot. He was lured away from PepsiCo by none other than Jobs with the best closing line ever: "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to change the world?"
In return, John Sculley led a boardroom coup that resulted in Jobs -- a founder -- losing significant leadership responsibilities and eventually leaving the company.
Jobs, on the other hand, is considered a modern-day hero among the Apple faithful. And it's for good reason. He returned to Apple to find the company in tatters – essentially a rudderless ship, post-iceberg collision. He quickly focused the company, and through sheer will -- and a popular iMac -- swung Apple back to profitability and firmer footing. What followed was one of the greatest company runs of the last 100 years.
But while it's easy and somewhat predictable to fall into broad characterizations -- Jobs never did anything wrong, and Sculley was a total disaster -- it simply isn't true.
In defense of John Sculley
It is a common misconception that Apple started falling off the rails the moment Jobs hit the road. That isn't true. Matter of fact, the company began somewhat of a short-lived renaissance in his absence, growing revenue nearly 19.5% per year after Jobs' dismissal and before Sculley left. One of Jobs' last post-departure products was the Apple Lisa, a clunky and expensive PC that's widely considered a commercial failure. Although he left the project early, the product would bear the name of his daughter -- and not by coincidence. In addition, many colleagues and coworkers reported that Jobs' behavior had become more erratic by the day.
And that was what Sculley was hired for. It was commonly known that Jobs was in no condition to run a company. Notoriously focused on products and downright hostile to anyone who encroached upon his fiefdom, Jobs at the time lacked the skills to run an organization. Those were lessons he would later learn in his roles at NeXT and Pixar.
Many believed Jobs hired Sculley as merely a figurehead, a yes man to acquiesce to Jobs' will. After Jobs' dismissal, Apple needed a true CEO; Sculley, with all his faults -- bloated advertising budgets, lack of technical skill, and the failed Newton rollout -- did about as well as anybody could have expected.
Jobs was a visionary
While much ink is spilled over Jobs' legendary return to Apple, it is important to understand that Jobs also had two other successful ventures in NeXT and Pixar. In addition to learning valuable CEO skills, there is one binding thread in each of these success stories: vision. Although Apple had previously established relationships with students through its Apple University Consortium, Jobs decided to make a unit dedicated to education with NeXT.
Pixar was a long shot, a struggling computer company with an interesting companion business: computer animation. In both cases, Jobs was able to extract value and eventually sell the companies -- Pixar to The Walt Disney Company and NeXT back to former employer Apple. Oh, Jobs went back to Apple with the NeXT transaction, too.
Where does Tim Cook fit into this?
In many ways, Cook fits the John Sculley mold. Sculley, boasting a Wharton MBA, was keenly aware of his responsibility to shareholders. Many arguments between Jobs and Sculley centered around providing value to shareholders; Jobs focused on the customer experience and at times came across as indifferent to shareholders. Cook has proven to be a shareholder advocate by returning Apple's huge cash pile (both in share repurchases and dividends), being more transparent in terms of communication, and instituting a long-anticipated stock split.
Cook is widely considered to be more of a products guy than Sculley, so it is safe to assume Apple won't revive the Newton anytime soon. But Jobs' return to Apple was marked by one product innovation after another -- the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Although there is real speculation in regards to an upcoming smart watch dubbed iTime, it is still merely a rumor.
In the end, it seems as if Tim Cook bears more similarities to Apple's loathed former CEO John Sculley than beloved Steve Jobs. But with such a strong brand and fan base, perhaps it needs less of a visionary and more of a classic value-creating manager at this time. Regardless of which former Apple leader he bears more similarities to at present, it seems as if Tim Cook is the man for the job.
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