01/18/2011 06:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Apple's Risk: Corporate Paralysis

We're all sorry to hear that Steve Jobs is forced to take an indeterminate medical leave from Apple, and the company will fare just fine -- for a time -- without him. Thousands of talented, intense people helped him rebuild that hit-maker machine.

So no reason to panic just yet, today's 2.25% slide in Apple shares notwithstanding. (That little tumble may amount to retaliation by some shareholders miffed at the company's conveniently burying this major news yesterday, on a market holiday. Not that it worked.)

But in the longer term, until the return of the digital demigod who founded, left, rejoined and revived one of the most fabled tech titans ever, Apple must stave off an illness of its own: corporate paralysis.

Inside any company, lieutenants may be reluctant to make major, bold decisions when the boss is out on medical leave. This risk is especially high inside Apple, where Jobs meddles in the tiniest micro-details and dictates the big-picture direction and investment that will shape the company's future.

Steve Jobs once is said to have ordered the repainting of an Apple building whose shade of eggshell white didn't match the similar shade on company trucks. (Or maybe the trucks got repainted, I've lost track of which was which.) Another story has him having a staffer fired after the hapless minion was unable to explain his own role at the company in a quick elevator chat with the founder.

If you were near the top of his company, would YOU want to forge some new strategic foray anytime in the next year?

This will require a teetering balancing act on the part of Apple's chief operating officer, Tim Cook, the make-it-happen, day-to-day Igor to Jobs's insanely great Frankenstein. Cook will need to show investors confident leadership and prove to insiders he has the authority to take action. Yet he dare not do it with evident alacrity, for fear of pulling an Al Haig.

Many years ago I had to run a group of reporters when our boss, fierce and devoted and eager for distraction, underwent a life-threatening transplant and months of full-time treatment. Seemed like every email update I sent was an attempt to take over.

Apple long has insisted, most likely at the direction of Steve Jobs himself, that Jobs alone be the face of the company. I've heard that, last year, Apple scotched an attempt by Fortune magazine to do a cover story featuring Cook. For years the company refused to provide much media access to the design auteur behind the Apple look, Jonathan Ives.

So how aggressive will Cook be in stepping up to give Wall Street and investors a reassuring face of the company? Even as Steve Jobs focuses, as he should, on his life-or death-struggle with pancreatic cancer and the liver transplant it required?

Apple strategy for the next two years is well set. The iPhone is now at both AT&T and Verizon; the iPad gets a refresh expected in April; the iPod line just got spruced up; AppleTV is in turnaround.

And, oh, almost forgot: The MacBook line of laptops -- remember back when Apple was Apple COMPUTER? -- is benefiting from all that beloved gadgetry.

The bigger test is what happens beyond two years, and some of the key decisions are being made now.

Should apple loosen up its controlling iPad policies to admit more apps? Make concessions to quell publishers' fears that it will dominate their business as it did to music? Accelerate efforts to sell TV shows and movies via Apple TV, in competition with the Hollywood studios that sell on iTunes? How hard should apple try to develop an online ad business to compete with Google's?

Even seemingly mundane design decisions could get snagged on the paralysis problem. Apple has a heritage of internecine warfare, with rival design teams and divisions one-upping one another over features and resources. (It is one reason why MacBooks carried both Firewire and USB ports: rival teams).

Seems like a safe bet that some of those verdicts still have to be rendered for the next iPad. Steve Jobs, ever the Solomonic patriarch, usually decides who rises and who falls. The question is whether he will let anyone else step in to play that role.

Frankly, guys, I rather doubt it. Not that I blame Steve Jobs for this. When you are fighting for your life and have lost control over the one thing that, rightfully, should belong to you -- your own health -- retaining control of the company you built could be a potent palliative. It's up to the rest of the folks at Apple to avoid letting that get in their way.