THE BLOG

Steve Jobs and the Dividends of Secrecy

08/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Steve Jobs has quietly returned to his desk after a six-month absence and a liver transplant. Despite episodic rants about Jobs' penchant for secrecy in our age of evangelical cries for "transparency," the Apple CEO's turbo-charged sense of discretion has served him brilliantly, to the apoplectic horror of governance pundits and PR flacks alike.

Paranoia and its tactical cousins, stonewalling and total enforcement of the Sicilian code of silence known as omerta, are supposed to be the first strategic blunders one learns about in an MBA crisis management course. The problem is, if you're Jobs, the landscape is littered with guttersnipes who really are out to get you, and any nugget of information he might disclose could become a weapon to be leveraged against him.

In an age where you can log onto your laptop and, within minutes, zoom in on the front door of a stranger's house, our culture suffers the collective delusion that it has the "right" to know everything about everybody. If it's your front door being scoped out, you might see things differently.

Team Jobs opted to stay largely silent throughout their boss's vanishing act, and when Apple wasn't silent, the company's backup strategy was to be seriously unhelpful. News of Jobs' liver transplant didn't even become public for two months after it occurred. For every legal pundit who suggested that the public company's incremental disclosures were potential securities violations, there were others who said this approach could be technically kosher. As long as keeping mum wasn't patently illegal, doing so was apparently worth the risk. Apple's stock price has been rising steadily since Jobs' hiatus under cover of darkness began. That'll teach 'em.

If Jobs has shredded the PR fable of the full disclosure, is the main lesson that all public figures and institutions can get away with Jobsian blackouts?

Not by a long shot.

Setting aside the legal and ethical implications of radio silence -- we're talking about efficacy here -- there are two main variables in Apple's successful campaign of non-disclosure. The first is that the company is very good at secrecy. Most companies are not. Investigative reporters and non-government organizations have build veritable enterprises on leaks from the likes of Wal-Mart and chemical companies. Whereas there was once a time when confidential information remained confidential, with these entities, leaks are not possibilities, they are near-certainties. Given Apple's no-nonsense leadership and extraordinary employee loyalty, the company is able to live under a rare cone of silence.

The second variable in Apple's profitable secrecy is that beyond a tiny core of intrepid investigative reporters, there isn't exactly a revolution brewing over demands for greater disclosure. Having worked with many companies and industries under siege, I have long marveled at how the tech sector, with some exceptions, has managed to shake the patina of rapacity that afflicts so many others.

When the Google boys (motto: "Don't be evil") decided a few years ago to buy a Boeing 757 because it was "good for the world," I was curious to see if the late night comedy shows would find this to be as hilarious as I did. Nope. It was in this spirit that the Reagan-era economic boom was broadly chronicled as "greed," but the even bigger tech-fueled expansion under Clinton was embraced as the "New Economy."

Put differently, outrage over secrecy (and other behavior patterns) has a lot to do with whether we like what you stand for. Or not.

Like Jobs, President Obama is a symbol of Stuff We Like or, at the very least, don't want to see derailed. Accordingly, whether it is secrecy with his own health records and birth certificate, or his refusal to release presidential visitors logs, photographs of detainee abuse at Guantanamo, or permit the White House to be subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, Obama's penchant for full-bore lockdowns doesn't possess the whiff of malfeasance it surely would have under Bush and Cheney -- who were also well-served by omerta.

As George Carlin once said, "People in Washington say it's not the initial offense that gets you into trouble, it's the cover-up. What this overlooks is the fact that most of the time the cover-up works just find, and nobody finds out a thing."

No one better understands the dividends of secrecy than the very institution that purports to be its nemesis: The news media. Journalists conceal their sources and, while unapologetically soliciting the betrayal of confidences amongst their targets, require non-disclosure agreements of their own employees, not to mention send powerful admonitions against newsroom leaks to their reporters as the New York Times did with some embarrassment in 2008.

Going forward, the debate over Jobs' shushapalooza will be tied largely to the state of his health and Apple's performance. If Jobs falters medically or financially, Apple's love of blackouts will quickly sprout a legal, ethical and moral dimension. But if Jobs stays well and iPhones keep flying off the shelves, his silence will again have proven to be golden.