Apple CEO Tim Cook gets cozy with Obamas

It was Apple CEO Tim Cook’s turn to join first lady Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address, exactly one year after Steve Jobs’s widow sat at Obama’s side for the president’s annual speech to Americans.

A new term for President Obama, and a new era of leadership for Apple. But Cook’s appearance at the State of the Union on Tuesday could signal the start of a cozy relationship between Apple and the White House – the kind of relationship that may never have been possible under Jobs.

“Cook will be more susceptible to arm-twisting by the Obamas than Jobs was,” said Prasad Kaipa, a professor and entrepreneurship expert with more than 30 years’ experience coaching Silicon Valley business leaders.

Cook sat in the first lady’s box as the president announced that Apple will start making Macs in America. Cook’s smiling face was captured on camera for a moment, and then the president moved on to talking about wind energy and the minimum wage.

It just so happened that Kaipa, who used to work as a senior manager for Apple, was discussing Cook’s leadership skills at a Mountain View business event at the very same time. Kaipa’s new book “From Smart to Wise: Acting and Leading with Wisdom,” due out in March, explores in part the differences between Cook and Jobs.

Obama’s announcement wasn’t news to most tech watchers; Cook said last year that Apple would spend at least $100 million to manufacture one of its Mac lines in the U.S., a response to criticism for outsourcing manufacturing to China. But Cook’s name on the first lady’s guest list and Obama’s plug for the company during one of the most-watched presidential speeches suggest a closeness that Jobs could not have cultivated with authority figures, Kaipa said.

Cook, 52, has humility and deference than Jobs didn’t – qualities essential in doing business with the President of the United States.

“He would listen a lot. He would probably be more deferential than Jobs,” Kaipa said.

Jobs may have been one of the greatest innovators of our time, but was often seen as callous and offensive. His biographies describe an arrogance that, while it helped him achieve the closest thing to corporate perfection in the tech world, was a roadblock to building relationships with dignitaries.

“Cook can be authentic and appropriate,” said Kaipa. “Not Jobs.”

Cook’s habit of rubbing elbows with the Obamas may serve Apple, and the planet, quite well. Kaipa said Apple’s move to bring manufacturing, however small a percentage, back to the US could be just the start of the company’s investments in social and environmental causes. Cook, a runner-up for TIME’s 2012 Person of the Year, genuinely cares about the country’s welfare and may start to display the type of grand philanthropy we’ve seen from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Recently named the second-most charitable American, Zuckerberg has donated hundreds of millions to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Newark Public School System.

“With proper help and guidance,” Kaipa said,  Cook “could make a tremendous contribution to this planet.”




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