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Jobs' saga raises CEO disclosure issues

Ongoing problems of Apple chief highlight concern about who's running a big company

By Jennifer Reingold
Last Updated: January 15, 2009: 1:56 PM ET

(Fortune) -- The ongoing saga of Steve Jobs' health has been, to put it mildly, a soap opera.

There was the pancreatic cancer that no one knew about until Jobs declared it over; the strange and sudden weight loss; the ongoing rumors of a recurrence of cancer; the hormone imbalance that just last week Jobs declared was not going to hurt his ability to run the company.

And now, this cryptic but sad note: "During the past week I have learned that my health-related issues are more complex than I originally thought."

Apple's stock has gyrated in concert with each set of rumors.

But should it have? Some governance experts believe that while Apple's board may have been legally within its rights in how and when it has disclosed Jobs' health woes, there is a lot more it could have done to help out its investors.

"When those rumors began months ago, it would have been advisable to be more transparent," says Charles Elson, director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware.

"In the case of someone with such a high profile," Elson adds, "you have to be more forthcoming."

It is clear, from Jobs' own memo last week, that he himself saw little reason to share what was going on.

"So now I've said more than I wanted to say, and all that I am going to say, about this," he wrote on Jan. 5, just over a week before Wednesay's announcement that he would take a leave of absence.

Now he has said a little bit more. But we still don't know why he is leaving.

Elson says situations like this one show how critical it is to always have a valid succession plan in place, whether someone is sick or not. No matter how vital an executive may seem, things do happen, such as Roberto Goizueta's lung cancer while running Coca-Cola and the heart attack of McDonald's Jim Cantalupo.

And in Apple's case, while Tim Cook has stepped ably into the job, the company has never - until now - given him the formal attention and support that might remind investors that Apple has been successful because of Jobs' leadership, yes, but also because of the thousands of brilliant executives and employees below him.

"While all this speculation has been going on, why hasn't the Street been more aware that there are other people?" wonders Elson. "There needs to be some assurance given to the public. The concern would be is the board or Mr. Jobs driving the process?"

Good question. To top of page

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