According to Apple CEO Tim Cook, he first learned about Steve’s need for a liver transplant in January 2009. By that time Steve wasn’t coming into the office at all, and Cook would visit him at home just about every day. He started to worry that things might finally be headed in a fatal direction. "It was terrible going over there day after day and talking with him, because you could see him slipping," says Cook. Steve was starting to look alarmingly frail. He developed ascites—an accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity, which caused his belly to protrude in a ghastly fashion—and he just lay in bed all day, gaunt and tired and irritable.
He was on the list of people in California who were awaiting a liver transplant. This isn’t a list that can be gamed. In fact, Steve’s chances of getting a donor were not good at all.
One afternoon, Cook left the house feeling so upset that he had his own blood tested. He found out that he, like Steve, had a rare blood type, and guessed that it might be the same. He started doing research, and learned that it is possible to transfer a portion of a living person’s liver to someone in need of a transplant. About 6,000 living-donor transplants are performed every year in the United States, and the rate of success for both donor and recipient is high. The liver is a regenerative organ. The portion transplanted into the recipient will grow to a functional size, and the portion of the liver that the donor gives up will also grow back.
Cook decided to undergo a battery of tests that determine if someone is healthy enough to be a living donor. "I thought he was going to die," Cook explains. He went to a hospital far from the Bay Area, since he didn’t want to be recognized. The day after he returned from the trip, he went to visit Steve. Sitting alone with him in the bedroom of the Palo Alto house, Tim began to offer his liver to Steve. "I really wanted him to do it," he remembers. "He cut me off at the legs, almost before the words were out of my mouth. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’ll never let you do that. I’ll never do that!’
"Somebody that’s selfish," Cook continues, "doesn’t reply like that. I mean, here’s a guy, he’s dying, he’s very close to death because of his liver issue, and here’s someone healthy offering a way out. I said, ‘Steve, I’m perfectly healthy, I’ve been checked out. Here’s the medical report. I can do this and I’m not putting myself at risk, I’ll be fine.’ And he doesn’t think about it. It was not, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ It was not, ‘I’ll think about it.’ It was not, ‘Oh, the condition I’m in . . .’ It was, ‘No, I’m not doing that!’ He kind of popped up in bed and said that. And this was during a time when things were just terrible. Steve only yelled at me four or five times during the 13 years I knew him, and this was one of them.
"This picture of him isn’t understood," says Cook. "I thought the [Walter] Isaacson book did him a tremendous disservice. It was just a rehash of a bunch of stuff that had already been written, and focused on small parts of his personality. You get the feeling that [Steve’s] a greedy, selfish egomaniac. It didn’t capture the person. The person I read about there is somebody I would never have wanted to work with over all this time. Life is too short.
"Steve cared," Cook continues. "He cared deeply about things. Yes, he was very passionate about things, and he wanted things to be perfect. And that was what was great about him. A lot of people mistook that passion for arrogance. He wasn’t a saint. I’m not saying that. None of us are. But it’s emphatically untrue that he wasn’t a great human being, and that is totally not understood.
"The Steve that I met in early ’98 was brash and confident and passionate and all of those things. But there was a soft side of him as well, and that soft side became a larger portion of him over the next 13 years. You’d see that show up in different ways. There were different employees and spouses here that had health issues, and he would go out of his way to turn heaven and earth to make sure they had proper medical attention. He did that in a major way, not in a minor, ‘Call me and get back to me if you need my help’ kind of way.
"He had the courage to admit he was wrong, and to change, a quality which many people at that level, who have accomplished that much, lack. You don’t see many people at that level who will change directions even though they should. He wasn’t beholden to anything except a set of core values. Anything else he could walk away from. He could do it faster than anyone I’d ever seen before. It was an absolute gift. He always changed. Steve had this ability to go through a learning curve quickly, more quickly than anybody I’ve known, about such a wide variety of things.
"The Steve I knew was the guy pestering me to have a social life, not because he was being a pest, but because he knew how important family was in his life, and he wanted it for me, too," says Cook, who came out as a gay man late in 2014. "One day he calls my mom—he doesn’t even know my mom, she lives in Alabama. He said he was looking for me, but he knows how to find me! He talked to her about me. There are lots of these things where you saw the very soft or caring or feeling or whatever you want to call it side of him. He had that gene. Someone who’s viewing life only as a transactional relationship with people...doesn’t do that."
In his last years at Apple, Steve did everything he could to have people there treat him as if he were not sick. "He was working his ass off till the end, in pain," remembers Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet software and services. "You could see it in the meetings; he was taking morphine and you could see he was in pain, but he was still interested." But he did make some adjustments upon his return, most of which were simply extensions of the shifts in priority he’d made after his 2004 operation. He focused on the parts of the ongoing business he cared about most—marketing, design, and the product introductions—and he started to take active steps to ensure that he would leave Apple in good shape after his death. This was a process that had started earlier—Cook says that Steve began thinking of succession and the post-Steve era of the company back in 2004—but everything accelerated now.
He spent some of his time working with Joel Podolny, a professor he had hired away from the Yale School of Management, to develop the curriculum for an executive education program he wanted to create called Apple University. Apple U. is designed as a place where future leaders of the company can review and dissect momentous decisions in the company’s history. It’s an attempt to reverse engineer, and then bottle, Steve’s decision-making process, and to pass on his aesthetics and marketing methodologies to Apple’s next generation. "Steve cared deeply about the why," says Cook. "The why of the decision. In the younger days I would see him just do something. But as the days went on he would spend more time with me and with other people explaining why he thought or did something, or why he looked at something in a certain way. This was why he came up with Apple U., so we could train and educate the next generation of leaders by teaching them all we had been through, and how we had made the terrible decisions we made and also how we made the really good ones."
Steve also focused on Apple’s new headquarters, which are now being built on the grounds of the old Hewlett-Packard campus in another neighborhood of Cupertino. He was actively involved in the design, working with Norman Foster Architects. The building will reflect many of the same thoughts that went into the creation of Pixar’s headquarters, albeit with an Apple spin. It will be one huge, circular structure, four stories tall and housing up to 13,000 employees. Its very design is intended to promote interaction among employees. Some people compare it to a space station. A common hallway stretches around the entire circle of each floor. A single café will seat 3,000 people. Some 80% of the grounds will be covered in shrubs, bushes, and trees, including a huge area in the middle of the circular structure. And the building will be its own technological marvel; its exterior won’t have a single pane of flat or rectilinear glass. Instead, the walls of the building will consist of enormous panels of perfectly curved glass. The cafeteria’s four-story glass doors will slide open when the weather is nice. "I think we have a shot," Steve told the Cupertino City Council, "at building the best office building in the world."
Steve’s approach to the creation of the campus was driven by the same principles as always. What kind of design would make the new headquarters the ideal form of that concept? The closer you could get to that ideal, the better for Apple. He wanted to do everything he could to ensure that Apple would remain what he believed it had become— the most important, most vital, and most creative industrial company in the world. "Steve wanted people to love Apple," says Cook, "not just work for Apple, but really love Apple, and really understand at a very deep level what Apple was about, about the values of the company. He didn’t write them on the walls and make posters out of them anymore, but he wanted people to understand them. He wanted people to work for a greater cause."
This belief in Apple as a special place—as a company as magical, perhaps, as an iPad—was something Steve shared with Cook and was certainly part of the reason he urged the board of directors to sign off on Cook as his successor. "This was a significant common thread we had," says Cook. "I really love Apple, and I do think Apple is here for a bigger reason. There are very few companies like that on the face of the earth anymore."
On August 11, a Sunday, Steve called Tim Cook and asked him to come over to the house. "He said, ‘I want to talk to you about something,’ " remembers Cook. "This was when he was home all the time, and I asked when, and he said, ‘Now.’ So I came right over. He told me he had decided that I should be CEO. I thought then that he thought he was going to live a lot longer when he said this, because we got into a whole level of discussion about what would it mean for me to be CEO with him as a chairman. I asked him, ‘What do you really not want to do that you’re doing?’
"It was an interesting conversation," Cook says, with a wistful laugh. "He says, ‘You make all the decisions.’ I go, ‘Wait. Let me ask you a question.’ I tried to pick something that would incite him. So I said, ‘You mean that if I review an ad and I like it, it should just run without your okay?’ And he laughed and said, ‘Well, I hope you’d at least ask me!’ I asked him two or three times, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ because I saw him getting better at that point in time. I went over there often during the week, and sometimes on the weekends. Every time I saw him he seemed to be getting better. He felt that way as well. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way."
Cook had been the obvious candidate for years. He had already run the company twice, during Steve’s medical leaves in 2004 and 2009. Besides, Steve preferred an internal candidate. "If you believe that it’s important to understand Apple’s culture deeply, you wind up clicking to an internal candidate," explains Cook. "If I were leaving this afternoon I’d recommend an inside candidate, because I don’t think there’s any way somebody could come in and understand the complexity of what we do and really get the culture in that deep way. And I think Steve knew that it also needed to be somebody that believed in the Beatles concept. [Jobs believed that the Fab Four brought out the best in one another—and moderated any individual’s excesses.] Apple would not be served well to have a CEO who wanted to or felt like they needed to replace him precisely. I don’t think there is such a person, but you could envision people trying. He knew that I would never be so dumb as to do that, or even feel that I needed to do that."
They had talked often about what the fate of Apple would be after Steve’s death. As Cook puts it, "He didn’t want us asking, ‘What would Steve do?’ He abhorred the way the Disney culture stagnated after Walt Disney’s death, and he was determined for that not to happen at Apple."
Eight weeks after Steve told Cook he was making him CEO, things took a sudden turn for the worse. "I watched a movie with him the Friday before he passed away," Cook remembers. "We watched Remember the Titans [a sentimental football story about an underdog]. I was so surprised he wanted to watch that movie. I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ Steve was not interested in sports at all. And we watched and we talked about a number of things and I left thinking that he was pretty happy. And then all of a sudden things went to hell that weekend."
[Photo: Eric Slomanson, Zuma, Corbis]
A version of this article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.