By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
January 20, 2011

In the flood of commentary after Jobs announced his sick leave, some contrarian opinions

There’s been no shortage of analysis — including ours — in the three days since Apple (AAPL) revealed that its co-founder was taking an open-ended medical leave.

Conventional wisdom has it that the company’s existing product lines are in good hands, but that Jobs will be sorely missed when it comes time to invent the next iPod, iPhone or iPad.

On Wednesday, Silicon Alley Insider‘s Dan Frommer turned that thinking upside down. “By removing himself from the day-to-day grind at Apple,” he writes, “Steve can think bigger-picture and longer-term about gadgets, technology, and how humans will use them in the future.”

Case in point: The iPad, an idea Apple had been kicking around for years, but which was turned into a marketable product only after Jobs came back from his last leave of absence.

But it’s Rik Willard, in a piece published in CNN International, who has the real contrarian position.

The founder of a consulting group called RULE7MEDIA, Willard argues that Apple had nowhere to go but down under Steve Jobs’ outdated counter-culture leadership.

“Apple is now Goliath,” he writes, “surpassing Microsoft in market value, impact and almost every other measure of digital culture. Similar to the cult of Bill Gates (yes, there once was one), the company is simply outgrowing its founder. Since ‘letting go of the baby’ is the single hardest thing for a serial entrepreneur such as Jobs, his unfortunate illness may have the touch of divine timing for the company as a whole.”

Hmm. We’ll stick with the conventional wisdom. For a smart take on that, check out Brad Stone and Peter Burrows analysis of Jobs as a classic “charismatic leader” in today’s Bloomberg Businessweek:

“Jobs may be the best example of a new breed of business leader who can intuit customer emotions. Another is Howard Schultz, the longtime CEO of Starbucks Corp., who is selling not just high-priced coffee but also the idea of a “third place” between home and work. Such leaders are not easily replaced. When Schultz retired from Starbucks in 2000, the company went into a steep decline, and he was compelled to return in 2008.

There is also evidence that operations-minded co-pilots fare poorly when they take over the control of companies in rapidly moving industries. Iconic founders such as Michael Dell and Charles Schwab stepped aside at their companies to make way for their operating partners — their Tim Cooks, if you will — and then were forced to return when the successors ran into trouble.

“The period after the charismatic leader is gone is always perilous, but in hypercompetitive, fast-moving industries, the loss becomes apparent much more rapidly,” says Jay Conger, a professor of leadership studies at Claremont McKenna College.

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

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