Tim Cook Is Not a Nice Guy—And That’s a Compliment
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Apr 18, 2013

Tim Cook Is Not a Nice Guy—And That’s a Compliment

By Harry M. Jansen Kraemer, Jr.

Apple CEO Tim Cook made headlines this week when he publicly apologized to customers in China for complaints over its customer service policies. What’s more, that apology was accompanied by very real changes to improve those policies. This is actually the second public apology he’s made on behalf of Apple in as many years, since taking over from Steve Jobs.

So a familiar conversation is taking place, one that occurs whenever a business leader is seen “doing the right thing” or making a sincere apology, which is to ask whether he is too nice for his company’s own good.

What good CEOs understand is that leadership isn’t about being nice or tough, it’s about relating to and influencing people.  If a leader’s goal is to be nice, he may have to compromise his integrity and decision-making ability in the process of appeasing everyone. Obviously, he’s not going to be effective.

I teach my students to be value-based leaders. A value-based leader is self-reflective, someone who looks at a situation from all perspectives; who seeks to understand before being understood; who is willing to admit when he is wrong or when he doesn’t know; who has genuine humility and a belief that he can always get better.

Look at Tim Cook’s actions and you’ll see he was doing all these things in addressing Apple’s customer service issues in China; that is, he’s not being nice, he’s being savvy.

As to the question of whether companies can afford to operate with a value-based leader—they can’t afford not to. Customers want to buy from companies that stand behind their products and deliver them through ethical means. Employees at all levels want to be valued as contributing partners. Companies that understand these concepts will do well and generate shareholder value.

And that’s something Tim Cook certainly understands.

Harry M. Jansen Kraemer, Jr. is a clinical professor of management and strategy at the Kellogg School.

Editor's Note: This post first appeared in Quartz on April 6. Photo by Haotian0905.