Tim Cook is gay. But that's not what he wants you to know about him.
In a column in Bloomberg Businessweek, Cook acknowledged what many had long known: he is homosexual. He has been openly gay to nearly everyone he has met. But, in the interest of privacy, he hasn't come out to the world, particularly to the shareholders, analysts and customers of Apple.
"While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now," he wrote. "So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me."
A strong statement, yes, and one particularly welcome by a LGBT community that, while on the rise in recent years, needs as many icons as it can muster. Cook is a prize in that regard: The man who runs what is arguably America's most important and innovative company is gay. Are you going to tell him whom he can marry?
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But, that is also Cook's dilemma. In his piece, he wrote about valuing his privacy, but he also hints that the conundrum for him is deeper. There is a danger in being corporate America's gay example, and it is more practical than philosophical.
Tim Cook is CEO of Apple. Without minimizing the human-rights struggles of the LGBT community, being CEO of Apple puts you under a tremendous amount of scrutiny, criticism, abuse, threats and pressure. To paraphrase the singer Morrissey, life is hard enough when you belong here, but it is even harder when you are running one of the most powerful brands in the world.
Think of Cook's leadership challenge: He spends every waking hour being compared with his predecessor. Steve Jobs is a legend, and every move Cook has made has been viewed through the lens of WWSJD ("What would Steve Jobs do?"). It is unfair, given that, internally, Cook had made a mark on that company for years. His elevation to the CEO role was evolutionary, not revolutionary. He has deftly handled that transition, conjuring enough of the Jobs magic but adding his own ingredients in the cauldron. With each passing day, Apple becomes less Steve Jobs' cult and more a company with responsibility to its customers and its shareholders.
Maintaining that transition is hard work. It takes every ounce of your attention and time. You cannot have distractions of any size. The danger, Cook knows, is that he is now America's most high-profile gay, and there will be a desire for him to weigh in personally on ballot initiatives, speak at campaign events, and give time, talent and treasure to LGBT causes. He can be mightier than Zeus in the American gay pantheon, particularly in the South, where Cook hails and where the battles can be so brutal.
But he doesn't have time for that. Really. He has a job to do.
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He says as much. While the poignancy is in other lines in his column ("We pave the sunlit path toward justice together, brick by brick. This is my brick."), the true leadership lesson comes in his full embracing of his role and responsibility to Apple:
"I’ve made Apple my life’s work, and I will continue to spend virtually all of my waking time focused on being the best CEO I can be. That’s what our employees deserve—and our customers, developers, shareholders, and supplier partners deserve it, too. Part of social progress is understanding that a person is not defined only by one’s sexuality, race, or gender. I’m an engineer, an uncle, a nature lover, a fitness nut, a son of the South, a sports fanatic, and many other things. I hope that people will respect my desire to focus on the things I’m best suited for and the work that brings me joy."
His desire is not to be Zeus. You could have guessed that, because he turned away the temptation to be Steve Jobs (arguably a more powerful role). He needs people -- both critics and advocates of LGBT rights -- to respect his desire to be CEO of Apple.
For business leaders, that's the big takeaway, and the sacrifice. You are beholden to your shareholders, your customers, your board, your investors and your employees. You can always be -- and should be -- who you are. Authenticity is a key component of leadership, after all.
But being CEO means not putting yourself first all the time. In the end, Cook's acknowledgement of that might be the most important revelation -- and lesson -- of all.