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Does Medical Leave Pose An Ethical Challenge For Steve Jobs?

Apple shareholders got a shock Monday.

While the U.S. markets were closed for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Steve Jobs sent a letter to his employees saying he was taking a medical leave of absence but was still retaining his title of CEO. Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook would again be responsible for the day to day activities.

His leave begs the question again of transparency and disclosure. Just how much should the company disclose to its shareholders on their CEOs health and when does disclosing too much breach Jobs' privacy? I decided to ask Bruce Weinstein, BusinessWeek.com's Ethics Columnist those questions.

LL: Jobs is retaining his title of CEO but Cook is responsible for all the day to day activities. The CEO title should not be in name only. If someone is involved in the day-to-day operations, shouldn't they be the acting CEO? Is Jobs holding onto the title more for a mental security blanket to calm investors?

BW: The CEO of a company is like the producer of a film: he or she is ultimately responsible for the overall health and well being of his or her charge. Hollywood has rightly taken to task the excessive number of people attached to a project as producer. Agents, writers, and even stars’ personal assistants have gotten producer credits and, in so doing, cheapened the value of the title. Likewise, for the term “Chief Executive Officer” to have any meaning, there must be one person at the helm who is actually doing the work.

LL: Isn't this just of a PR stunt in terms of the board having a vote of confidence in Steve's health?

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BW: It would be extremely cynical, and most likely inaccurate, to view the board’s vote simply as a cheap ploy to keep a brave public face for financial reasons. The directors have to know that such a move would, in the long run, damage the company and actually lessen investor confidence. By all accounts, Jobs is not like any other CEO in the world today; he engenders tremendous loyalty. This is how the board’s vote should be viewed. They believe in him and his ability to prevail. At the very least, they *want* to believe he can beat this thing.

Let’s not forget that Steve Jobs isn’t just a CEO; he’s also a human being. What’s called for right now, from everyone who cares about the future of Apple, isn’t just concern about the company but also compassion for its leader.

LL: But that said, Apple has a bad track record when it comes to disclosing all the truth when it comes to Jobs' health. Should the street be more concerned about this "temporary" situation?

BW: Yes. The problem with having a history of not being forthright is that it lessens one’s credibility. After all, the best predictor of the future is the past. If you make it a habit of not being fully transparent when transparency is called for, as it is here, then it’s only natural for folks to be skeptical when you say, “Trust me on this.”

LL: Will Apple be successful in overcoming this Jobs complex?

BW: I wouldn’t call the psychology of the stakeholder a “Jobs complex,” which suggests an inappropriate degree of attachment. Apple has been one of the most innovative companies in the history of business, and this is largely because of the Steve Jobs' creativity, vision, and commitment to high quality (including, I must add as a satisfied customer, Apple’s superlative customer service). It is only natural for stakeholders to want Jobs to remain as long as possible in the role of leader. But, as a popular poster from the 70’s once said, “The only unchangeable thing is change itself.”

LL: Why no succession plan? That would cure Apple's ills, wouldn't it?

BW: Nothing lasts forever, so the prudent thing for any leader to do is anoint a successor. But Jobs is hardly the only CEO who doesn’t have someone lined up to follow him. Who is going to run the News Corp. when Rupert Murdoch’s time is up? As the CEO of The Ethics Guy, LLC, I too worry about who will be next in line, and like these other two mavericks, I haven’t made my choice, either. It’s one thing to know that we have to accept the inevitable; it’s another thing to have the courage to do so.

LL: This is not Cook's first time taking the reins from Jobs while he was on sick leave. Is he the best candidate for Jobs' position?

BW: I wish I were qualified to answer this question, but I’m not. As Dirty Harry said in “Magnum Force,” “A man has got to know his limitations.”

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A Senior Talent Producer at CNBC, and author of "Thriving in the New Economy:Lessons from Today's Top Business Minds."