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It's a grim question, but it's one that investors are asking themselves after it was recently announced that Jobs would be taking another medical leave of absence.
Investors shouldn't panic -- for now at least. Although Jobs won't be running the day-to-day operations, he will still be involved in major strategic decisions at the company. And it's his strategic decisions that have led Apple to stratospheric heights. The company's ability to skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been, is the result of Steve Jobs' leadership and vision.
Apple also has an excellent team set in place that has taken over for Jobs during his other health-related absences. In 2004, Jobs left the company to battle pancreatic cancer and also took medical leave to recover from a liver transplant in the first half of 2009. In both cases, Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook successfully managed the day-to-day operations while marketing chief Phil Schiller and industrial design king Jony Ive continued to deliver hot new products.
But what happens when Steve Jobs finally leaves for good?
Apple will survive, but it won't be the same company. Steve Jobs is Apple. Odds are a new leader will make decisions that will take the company down a different path, and the new Apple won't have the same cachet it has today (of course, even with a visionary like Jobs, eventually Apple's growth has to level off).
This is exactly what happened for several years to
Walt Disney(DIS - Get Report). Granted, the company is a powerhouse once again, but it struggled for years to regain its "magic" after Walt died in 1966.
Some CEOs are so synonymous with their companies that it's almost impossible to imagine the company surviving without them. But why is it that some companies have been able to successfully manage the departure of their larger-than-life founders while others have failed?
A lot of it depends on their business model. Apple and Disney's success hinges upon creativity, innovation and an almost mystic-like feel to their products that is almost impossible to replicate without their famous founders.