I knew things were bad when Steve Jobs didn’t make even a token video appearance at Macworld.  He would have done it, I’m sure, had he been well enough.  Maybe someone at Apple, weeks before, thought of suggesting such a video, but of course to do so then would have been committing career suicide even if in retrospect it would have been a good idea.  So now Steve is off on his six month (or longer) medical leave, readjusting those hormones, and the press is abuzz with what the heck Apple will do without Steve.

Apple will be fine.

Steve Jobs is an amazing chief executive, clearly the best of his era, but that doesn’t make him irreplaceable.  True, he saved Apple, but now Apple is saved.  The company is rich, has growing market share and a mindshare dominance envied throughout the computer AND music AND video AND mobile phone industries.  Steve could die tomorrow and Apple would be fine for years to come.  Apple might even be better.

Steve, for all his design insight and high standards is also a pain in the ass, but it is his narcissism – keeping the whole company on edge and terrified, will he or won’t he? – that has to have taken a toll and may well land the company in court.  Twenty thousand people are sitting around wondering whether their jobs are endangered because he is ill and that’s just crazy.

For a time Apple will be run with everyone asking, “What would Steve say?”  And because he’s been such a huge factor in the lives of his direct reports for so long, they’ll have that voice of Steve in their heads and will do the right thing automatically.  And eventually, if Steve for some reason doesn’t return to Apple, new Steves will emerge.  If that happens I’m guaranteeing right here that Apple will gain a new CEO and it won’t be Tom Cook OR Phil Schiller because neither man can replace Steve Jobs and they know it.

In the long run the goal won’t be to replace Steve, anyway, but to transcend him, because Steve was far from the perfect leader.

The last time Steve Jobs left Apple, back in 1985, the entire company breathed a sigh of relief.  Steve back then was an undisciplined brat.  John Sculley was able to dramatically improve Apple’s balance sheet through one simple technique – eliminating all the wacky projects Steve was spending $200 million per year running at Apple – projects that were generally never going to hit the market anyway.  Alas, that’s where Sculley ran out of gas as a leader because he lacked technical vision where that’s all Steve had in those days.

It took learning to run NeXT on a budget and almost losing the company to teach Steve how to be a leader.  It took learning to leave Pixar alone to teach Steve that there were some things – many things – best left to others more talented than he.  Those two experiences, added to his fall from grace in 1985, made Steve Jobs the leader he is today.  Still all elbows and shoulder blades, he somehow makes it work.

I feel for the guy.  It’s not his health scare, but his lack of true friends that worries me.  When your best friend is Larry Ellison you know you are in trouble. But that may be the best that either man can do. 

Steve is the critic of everyone around him. Yet the image I prefer to keep in mind was from an InfoWorld meeting years ago – back in his NeXT days – when Bob Metcalfe got Steve to show up and he brought with him his little baby.  In that short time I saw a doting and concerned father — a side of Steve I would have sworn could not exist.  Cynically I attributed it at the time to the baby being pre-verbal: how do you criticize someone who can’t understand what you are saying?  But Steve went on to have more kids, apparently with equal success, and I give him credit for that.  It’s not easy to be a good Dad.

So here’s to Steve Jobs, may he return in six months or go off and do anything else he likes.  But don’t worry about Apple. 

Apple’s on a roll.