Should a public company have to tell its shareholders that its CEO has been diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness? In the case of Steve Jobs, a CEO who is arguably Apple's single most valuable asset, I think the answer is "yes."
In the latest issue of Fortune, Peter Elkind dredges up some old news about Apple and Jobs--the backdating scandal, a 2003 bout with pancreatic cancer--but he also adds a new twist to the latter: Jobs and Apple's board knew about Jobs' cancer for 9 months before they disclosed it to Apple's shareholders.
Elkind's story was titled "The Trouble with Steve Jobs," and he suggests Jobs was reckless about his cancer because he pursued a diet treatment instead of immediately rushing to get an operation. I have no issue with this: How a senior executive chooses to treat a serious illness is--and should be--entirely his or her business. Whether Apple shareholders should have been made aware of Jobs's cancer, however, is a different question.
The issue here is whether Steve Jobs' right to personal privacy takes precedence over his role as Apple's most valuable asset. Although it would be nice to be able to draw a hard line between the two, in this case you can't. For better and worse, Jobs-the-person is synonymous with Jobs-the-asset. And I think Apple shareholders have a right to know if one of their company's biggest assets might be impaired.
Fortune's Elkind says Apple's lawyers told Apple's board that they were not legally obligated to disclose the cancer. Perhaps, according to a strict legal interpretation, they weren't.
But look at it this way: If you were an Apple shareholder, would you want to know that Steve Jobs had cancer? I would have.