The trouble with Steve Jobs
Jobs likes to make his own rules, whether the topic is computers, stock options, or even pancreatic cancer. The same traits that make him a great CEO drive him to put his company, and his investors, at risk.
In October 2003, as the computer world buzzed about what cool new gadget he would introduce next, Apple CEO Steve Jobs - then presiding over the most dramatic corporate turnaround in the history of Silicon Valley - found himself confronting a life-and-death decision.
During a routine abdominal scan, doctors had discovered a tumor growing in his pancreas. While a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is often tantamount to a swiftly executed death sentence, a biopsy revealed that Jobs had a rare - and treatable - form of the disease. If the tumor were surgically removed, Jobs' prognosis would be promising: The vast majority of those who underwent the operation survived at least ten years.
Yet to the horror of the tiny circle of intimates in whom he'd confided, Jobs was considering not having the surgery at all. A Buddhist and vegetarian, the Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) CEO was skeptical of mainstream medicine. Jobs decided to employ alternative methods to treat his pancreatic cancer, hoping to avoid the operation through a special diet - a course of action that hasn't been disclosed until now.
For nine months Jobs pursued this approach, as Apple's board of directors and executive team secretly agonized over the situation - and whether the company needed to disclose anything about its CEO's health to investors. Jobs, after all, was widely viewed as Apple's irreplaceable leader, personally responsible for everything from the creation of the iPod to the selection of the chef in the company cafeteria. News of his illness, especially with an uncertain outcome, would surely send the company's stock reeling. The board decided to say nothing, after seeking advice on its obligations from two outside lawyers, who agreed it could remain silent.
In the end, Jobs had the surgery, on Saturday, July 31, 2004, at Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto, near his home. The revelation of his brush with death remained - like everything involving Jobs and Apple - a tightly controlled affair. In fact, nary a word got out until Jobs' tumor had been removed. The next day, in an upbeat e-mail to employees later released to the press, he announced that he had faced a life-threatening illness and was "cured." Jobs assured everyone that he'd be back on the job in September. When trading resumed a day after the announcement, Apple shares fell just 2.4%.
Apple entertained no further questions about Jobs' health, citing the CEO's need for privacy. No one learned just how long Jobs had been sick - or that he had contemplated not having the surgery at all. "It was very traumatic for all of us," recalls one of those in whom Jobs confided, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the topic's sensitivity. "We all really care about Steve, and it was a serious risk for the company as well. It was a very emotional and very difficult time. This was one page in the adventure."