In the wake of Steve Jobs' announcement on Jan. 17 that he would be taking a new medical leave, two ethical questions arise. First, as chief executive of Apple (AAPL), does Jobs have the same right to privacy that others do? And if this right is a limited one, how much is Jobs ethically obligated to disclose to stakeholders about what is going on?
I'll explain why Jobs' right to privacy is not absolute and why the right thing for him to do is to reveal details about his medical condition that are relevant to his leadership abilities.
1. Role-specific duties exist. People have ethical obligations by virtue of the positions hold. These obligations don't necessarily apply to others. For example, physicians have a role-specific duty to render first aid to strangers. The roots of the word "professional" mean "to make a public declaration." Physicians declare that they are of service to others.
2. The CEO of a public company has role-specific duties to stakeholders. Whether you create a company from scratch—as Steve Jobs did—or step into the top position, your leadership brings with it responsibilities as well as perks. The perks are obvious: a hefty salary, influence in business and beyond, and in Jobs' case, respect and admiration around the world. The price for these perks includes an obligation to do things one might not like to do, such as disclose to stakeholders things about yourself that pertain to the successful operation of the company.
3. Stakeholders have an interest in the CEO's health. By "interest," I don't mean a morbid curiosity, but rather a right to know whether or not the captain of the ship can physically perform the work expected.
4. Jobs' medical condition, his treatment options, and his prognosis all fall within the rightful purview of stakeholders. Reality TV shows, entertainment blogs, and 24-hour cable news networks have all but obliterated the line between one's professional and personal lives. The line was thin to begin with: Rock Hudson and Freddie Mercury were both robbed of dignity in their final days by a ruthless press corps that speculated (correctly, as it turned out) that each was dying of HIV/AIDS.
Celebrity alone should not carry with it public access to the intimate, intensely personal details of someone's private life. But Steve Jobs' celebrity fits into a different category from that of entertainment stars. His health can and does affect how well his company functions. Someone as hands-on as Jobs may not be able to fulfill his duties while wrestling with a life-threatening illness.
Jobs' current leave of absence for medical reasons is his third one in seven years. He announced he had pancreatic cancer (for which he underwent surgery) in 2004, and in 2009 he received a liver transplant.
5. Steve Jobs occupies a rare position in business. "Perhaps more than any other chief executive," wrote Miguel Helft in The New York Times, "he is seen as inseparable from his company's success." What other company can generate the top news story of the day whenever it announces the release of a new product? Consumers buy an iPhone, iPad, or MacBook (like the one I'm writing this article on) largely because they know and trust Steve Jobs' commitment to excellence. This dedication should apply not only to making great gadgets, but also to treating with respect the people who buy and invest in these technological marvels.
It is understandable why Jobs would tell Apple employees, "[M]y family and I would deeply appreciate respect for our privacy," and although information about Jobs' family shouldn't be a matter of public record, his own right to privacy is limited by what he owes to Apple stakeholders.
6. Business ethics cut both ways. I've been focusing on what Steve Jobs should do as Apple's leader. At the same time, business ethics should refer not only to what businesses owe stakeholders but also to what stakeholders owe businesses. We ought to keep in mind that Steve Jobs isn't just a CEO; he is a human being. What's called for right now, from everyone who cares about the future of Apple, isn't just concern about the company but also compassion for its leader. (It's worth noting that "compassion" literally means "to suffer with.")
As chief executive of a publicly traded company, Steve Jobs has a role-specific duty to inform stakeholders of anything likely to affect how he runs the organization. This includes his current medical condition and prognosis, his treatment options, and how well he is doing as this ordeal progresses. Stakeholders—and everyone else—should show compassion for this visionary genius who has enriched our lives in so many ways.