Does being gay make Tim Cook a better CEO?

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Apple CEO Tim Cook calls being gay
Tim Cook calls being gay "God's greatest gift."
Photo: thierry ehrmann/Flickr CC

Since he came out as gay eight years ago, Apple CEO Tim Cook has led the company through the most successful period in its history. Cook once said he wanted to prove you can “be gay and still go on and do some big jobs in life.” He’s certainly done that.

But maybe there’s more to this story than overcoming prejudice. In 2018, Cook told CNN that being gay is “God’s greatest gift to me.” Far from a disadvantage, could being gay actually be an instrumental part of his success?

As a gay man myself, Cook has always been an inspiration for me. So to celebrate Pride Month, here’s why I think being gay made him a better CEO.

Tim Cook and Steve Jobs are more alike than they seem

Many people assumed Apple’s glory days were over when Cook took the helm back in 2014. Steve Jobs had just led the company through the greatest turnaround in business history, releasing a series of smash-hit products.

Jobs was passionate, demanding and mercurial while Cook was modest, studious and soft-spoken. They seemed like polar opposites. How could Cook possibly replace Jobs?

But in one key way, they were very much alike. Jobs rarely worried about public opinion or what the competition was doing. Instead, he focused on making the best products he knew how. For example, people told him the iMac would fail because it didn’t have a floppy drive. Critics also said the iPhone needed a tiny plastic keyboard to become successful.

Both of these features were industry standards at the time. Jobs ignored the critics and proved them wrong.

This approach was neatly summarized by Apple’s legendary strapline: “Think Different.” It’s something every gay man learns to do from an early age.

Gay men learn to ‘think different’ to survive

Being gay means on some level you will always be an outsider, never fully accepted in society.

The process of coming out — first to yourself, then to friends and family, and, in the case of Tim Cook, to the entire world — is not an easy thing to do. It involves coming to terms with the fact that you are different from most people. You don’t fit in and you never will.

As a result, gay people go through the kind of soul-searching straight people rarely have to. Learning to love yourself and be true to yourself regardless of what others thinks takes a lot of emotional work.

But if you find a way to come to terms with it, the results are empowering. You’re finally free from the judgment of others. You can embrace and celebrate your own difference. That’s what “pride” really means. You can literally think different.

Tim Cook may not seem as bold and charismatic as Jobs when he’s onstage delivering a keynote. But the ability to share his truth with the world in such a public way shows he possesses a powerful inner strength. Just like his predecessor, he’s not afraid to be different.

Being fabulous takes a thick skin

At school, I was bullied for being gay long before I even knew my own sexual orientation. The other kids could just tell I wasn’t like them. Some chose to punish me for it.

Similarly, being the boss of one of the world’s most valuable companies will get you plenty of unwelcome attention. Surviving in a job like that takes a thick skin.

Tim Cook once said all the prejudicial comments he received as a gay man had given him a thick skin and “that turns out to be pretty beneficial from this role as well.”

Tim Cook really gets diversity

Apple continues to soar under Tim Cook's assured leadership.
Cupertino continues to soar under Tim Cook’s assured leadership.
Photo: Apple

Diversity has a long and complex history. American businesses are legally required to provide equal opportunities for all under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Some companies treat diversity as a compliance issue. Just another box to tick to prove they were on the right side of the law. Others recognize it as a social justice issue and are keen to “do their bit” as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives.

As a white man from Alabama, Cook is part of a privileged group. He would have grown up never knowing what it was like to be part of a minority, deemed to be inferior and less worthy. But the fact that he is gay changes all that.

Cook says he “learned what it was like to be a minority. The feeling of being in a minority gives you a level of empathy for other people who are not in the majority.”

I believe this empathy is a key aspect of Cook’s success. He genuinely understands that things look very different depending on your perspective. And the more diverse perspectives you bring into an organization, the smarter it becomes. Products made by people with diverse perspectives will appeal to more people.

In other words, Cook realizes that the right thing to do is also the smart thing to do.

No wonder Tim Cook takes privacy seriously

It’s a sobering thought that Apple sells products in countries where Tim Cook would face imprisonment, public flogging or even execution just for being gay.

Even after all the progress made in LGBT equality over the past decade, we as a group are still far from safe. In America, anti-LGBT hate crime is on the rise.

Cook sacrificed a lot of his own privacy when he decided to publicly come out. That must have been a tough decision. By giving up some of his own privacy, he made other gay people a little safer, by helping to change public perceptions of what a gay man is and can be.

All LGBT people will have “incriminating” evidence on their iPhones. In the wrong hands, an “I love you” message from a same-sex partner, or a calendar appointment with a transgender clinic, could be a death sentence.

Even in a supposedly civilized country, the privacy of our electronic devices is a life-and-death issue. Especially for LGBT people. No wonder Tim Cook takes it so seriously.

Leadership that breaks down barriers

We don’t know much about Cook’s private life, because, well, that’s private! But one thing that’s a matter of public record is his love for football and his team, the Auburn University Tigers.

Cook went back to Auburn, his alma mater, in 2017 to deliver an inspirational speech to the players. He explained that Apple was like a football team.

“We care deeply about people,” he said. “Excellence has to be everyone.”

By pursing his passion for football, Cook is not just being true to himself. He’s also leading by example and breaking down stereotypes. Few things in America epitomize manly heterosexuality more than football. There’s never been an out gay player in the NFL. Hopefully, thanks to the leadership of people like Cook, that’s going to change.

Despite his quiet, unassuming demeanor, Cook is a natural leader. “It comes down to one thing,” he said. “Treating people with dignity and respect.” That kind of leadership has surely played a big part in Apple’s stratospheric success over the past decade.