There's a fine line between strong, charismatic leadership and a cult of personality. But are these shining stars good for business or more of a weakness in the long run? Let's hold a few of them up to the light to see if we can figure out this burning question.

Captain Obvious
You know we'd have to start with the most inspirational leader of our times: Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs.

The Turtlenecked One not only created the Apple brand, but then came back from corporate exile to save it. Now Apple is one of the most valuable businesses in the world on the strength of sleek, intuitive consumer products and a uniquely symbiotic ecosystem of gadgets and services. And some people, including four Foolish newsletter teams, still think the stock is undervalued.

But what happens if you take Jobs out of the mixture? The last wholesale Jobs-ectomy back in the 1990s nearly killed the company.

Since Steve started his last health-related break from Apple's CEO chair, the stock has abandoned its astounding upwards curve to move largely sideways instead, in spite of another two stellar earnings reports and the fact that Steve keeps a hand on the strategic rudder of the company.

Even if Jobs has arranged for an orderly succession when he just can't do it anymore, it seems like Mr. Market just doesn't trust Apple without a healthy Steve running the show. To me, this is a perfect example of idol worship gone a bit too far, and the cult of personality keeps me away from Apple shares. There's just too much downside left to unlock when Steve steps aside.

The antithesis
Compare and contrast Jobs to longtime nemesis Bill Gates of Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT). When Gates handed the CEO job off to Steve Ballmer in January, 2000, Microsoft shares were coming off a bubble-inflated 10-year climb that puts Apple's recent charts to shame. Since then, well, let's be kind and start counting from somewhere after the dot-com crash and the Ballmer era that still doesn't impress.

This is, of course, a different animal from Apple. Gates was never as universally loved as Jobs, even at the height of his powers, and attracted both legal scrutiny and public scorn for his aggressive business tactics. But he's as instrumental to the Microsoft story as Jobs ever was to Apple.

Bill Gates is still chairman and sets the tone for Microsoft, so if his leadership was key to the company's earlier success, it sure didn't translate very well into the new structure. Is this what Apple's chart will look like in the next decade?

New blood
Jumping slightly sideways to another Microsoft board member, there's Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX) CEO Reed Hastings.

Having started the company as a knee-jerk reaction to exorbitant late fees for video rentals, Hastings has bludgeoned the DVD rental industry into submission and embarked on an all-digital global conquest. Netflix is very much a reflection of his engineering background and take-no-prisoners business mind-set.

So what would happen if Hastings retired to the Swiss Alps or abandoned Netflix to run for Governor of California and save the school system? Well, it wouldn't be pretty at first -- Netflix shares would crash hard without Hastings' inspired leadership and frequent media appearances, because investors panic easily.

So why do I own shares of Netflix while protesting that the Big Leader aspect scares me off of Apple? Three reasons:

  • First, Hastings has shown no signs of giving it all up, and doesn't suffer from highly public health problems -- I'm convinced that he'll be around for a long time yet, while Jobs might not.
  • Second, there's that engineering background. I fully expect Hastings to have mapped out his current and long-term strategy in great detail, perhaps in the form of Venn diagrams and flowcharts. His successor should have no problem carrying on as before.
  • Third, Netflix is a very simple business model that doesn't rely on constant innovation to keep the engines running. Apple needs a constant flow of all-new home run hits, but any reasonably competent manager could make Netflix work now that the difficult trailblazing has been done. Some say that this simplicity makes Netflix vulnerable in case Apple or Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) ever decide to attack the online video space, but I think it's a long-term asset built on years of hard-to-duplicate work.

Moreover, Hastings may be a superstar to Netflix insiders and close-up company watchers (like us), but the average American has no clue who he is. If this is a cult of personality, it's a rather private one.

Heroes, heroes everywhere
Some cults have nothing to do with leadership. Where would Sirius XM Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI) be today without cultish show host Howard Stern? Not north of $2 per share, I tell you.

Stern says that he won't renew his current five-year contract, so Sirius investors must be hoping that his stint translates into a satellite radio audience willing to stick around without that crucial ingredient. Otherwise, Pandora Media (NYSE: P) and other next-generation media outlets could quickly render Sirius irrelevant when Howard signs off.

And now Howard and Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin are fighting over years of allegedly missing back pay. How long will Stern perform if he's not getting the respect he craves? And is that long enough?

If you want proof that even infallible leaders don't last forever, look no further than Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO) CEO John Chambers. Once an adored leader of the world's most valuable company, as Cisco passed Microsoft in a battle of half-trillion-dollar market caps, Chambers is now a pariah reduced to apologizing for his strategic decisions. No cow is too sacred for the slaughterhouse, it seems.

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Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Netflix but holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of and has created a bull call spread position on Cisco Systems. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Netflix, Cisco Systems, Amazon.com, Microsoft, and Apple. We have also recommended creating a diagonal call position in Microsoft, buying puts in Netflix, and creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.