The news yesterday that Apple CEO Steve Jobs will be taking a leave of absence to deal with medical issues that are more serious than previously admitted was a surprise to Apple customers, observers and shareholders.

While a company’s CEO is just one part of the ‘success‘ equation, Jobs is no ordinary CEO.

When he returned to the company he founded and took over as CEO in 1997, Jobs began the revitalization of Apple that produced the Apple we know today. In the process, he became one of the most respected business executives in the world.

His absence over the next 6 months (which some believe could become permanent) will not mean that Apple is without competent management. It still has more talent than most companies could ever hope to acquire. As Claudine Beaumont of The Telegraph points out:

Apple’s vision and design flair will not disappear overnight. There’s a
formidable team of top-level executives in place who can sustain the company’s
momentum. Tim Cook, a close friend of Jobs, has been running the company for
years behind the scenes, according to former colleague Mike Janes. Likewise the
design team, lead by Jony Ive, will continue developing Apple’s current raft of
new products, albeit with limited input from Steve Jobs.

Given the fact that Apple is definitely not a one man show or a one trick pony, it’s not likely to falter overnight.

But that’s not to say that the company won’t face significant challenges. The most immediate challenge is the uncertainty and confidence. Apple’s share price has been hurt by the uncertainty surrounding Jobs’ health and while companies shouldn’t manage for share price, no company wants to risk losing the confidence of its long-term shareholders. Already, some observers are suggesting very strongly that Apple has been less-than-forthcoming about the situation with Jobs and Apple will eventually need to address these concerns, assuring shareholders and consumers that it is not trying to mislead them.

Over the long term, despite the prominent role Jobs plays in Apple’s direction and product strategy, the absence of Jobs would likely harm Apple most in the publicity department. Steve Jobs is Apple to so many people. When he speaks, everybody listens. Many consider Jobs to be a visionary, a legend, a rockstar; some even consider him to be a tech god.

This has given Apple the ability to drum up press attention on demand. To passionate Apple customers and tech journalists, Jobs’ keynotes at MacWorld were a religious experience and the value of Jobs’ marketing prowess should not be underestimated. Jobs alone has probably generated hundreds of millions of dollars worth of publicity for Apple, if not billions.

Thus, without Jobs, Apple’s challenge is not going to be creating great products. It can do that without him. It’s going to be inspiring consumers and leading them to believe that these products are more than products.

Up until now, buying an Apple product was buying into Steve Jobs’ vision. Apple needs to keep Jobs’ vision alive and perhaps more realistically, show the world that it has a vision of its own.