It’s lonely at the top for Apple

February 28, 2013, 12:56 PM UTC

It is said that reputations take years to make, yet can be unmade in an instant. Even so, it seems it will take more than a business moment to put a serious dent in Apple’s image, at least in the eyes of its admiring corporate peers.

For the sixth consecutive year, Apple has earned the top ranking in Fortune’s annual poll of executives asked to identify the companies they most admire. For some, the news will come as a surprise. Headlines of late have tended to portend Apple’s demise, comparing the computer and mobile-gadget maker to Microsoft (the horror) and wondering whether Apple had lost its cool factor.

There’s legitimate cause for concern. Apple’s stock has plunged 35% from its September high. Its products, while selling robustly, have lost market share to rivals and have included at least one unmitigated dud — Apple’s mediocre mapping service. Worst of all, there’s a sense about the company that it is adrift without its legendary leader, Steve Jobs, who died in late 2011, leaving behind a management team that is little known to the public.

Corporate admiration, however, appears to outlast the fickle tastes of investors and consumers alike. Apple scored No. 1 in a nine-point evaluation of similar companies as well as in an overall poll of all respondents to Fortune’s Most Admired survey. It is not hard to understand Apple’s durable appeal. The company generates about $16 billion in cash per quarter, customers continue to mob its elegant retail stores, and even its derivative products, like the iPad Mini, quickly sell out. And it’s not as if Apple’s peer group — think Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and BlackBerry — cover themselves in glory.

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For those expecting a fall from grace, Apple undoubtedly is a victim of its own success. Jobs, a legend in his own time and the face of Apple, actively hid his managers from public view, preferring that they focus on work, not self-aggrandizement. What’s more, for a company that without hyperbole can be described as having released four revolutionary products in a decade — iTunes, iPod, iPhone, and iPad — expectations become exceedingly high.

Yet the still-admiring executives who try to do what Apple does must have a sense of Apple’s persistent potential. Apple’s management bench is deep, if not famous. It’s also easy to forget that six years separated the iPod and the iPhone, which preceded the iPad by another three years. When Apple released the iPad in 2010, it was initially mocked. Three years have passed, making the company not yet overdue to issue its latest category-defining product, whatever that may be. The world expects miracles from Apple. So much so that the absence of one on a regular schedule spells doom to some. Mere mortals at companies that never have put a dent in the universe continue to admire Apple’s accomplishments.

We may look back at this period of turmoil and doubt as the beginning of the end for Apple, in which case today’s naysayers will have been right. Perhaps the admiration of one’s peers is a lagging indicator, akin more to a hall-of-fame vote than to a most-valuable-player award. The company whose late founder aimed for it to be “insanely great” remains plenty damn good. The years to come will determine if, for Apple, that’s good enough.

This story is from the March 18, 2013 issue of Fortune.