Authentically communicating the purpose of an organization is a critical leadership skill—key to long-term performance, retention, and perhaps even workers’ wellbeing.
This was one of Steve Jobs’ superpowers, connecting his and his colleagues’ work to a higher mission. “We believe that people with passion can change the world for the better,” Jobs told a group of Apple employees in 1997. “And that those people that are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones that actually do.” (p. 103)
“It’s so important to pick very important things to do because it’s very hard to get people motivated to make a breakfast cereal,” Jobs noted in an interview published that same year. “It takes something that’s worth doing.” (p. 82)
These observations are some of the many included in a new, free ebook released by the Steve Jobs Archive called Make Something Wonderful. While not presented as such, the book is effectively a master class in identifying and framing the purpose of organizations, as told through a chronological collection of Jobs’ speeches, interviews, emails, and notes to himself.
In an email he sent to himself to capture his thoughts one afternoon in October 2000, readers can literally see Jobs working through how to articulate “Apple’s reason for being.” The message includes different variations on the following: “Apple is the premier company in the world at making the exploding world of high technology easy to learn and use, thereby enabling mere mortals to enrich their lives using it.” (p. 117)
In this vein, Jobs believed Apple’s “major contribution was in bringing a liberal arts point of view to the use of computers” by, for example, introducing beautiful fonts and making graphics and artwork accessible to anyone with the Mac. (p. 65)
Jobs in 1996 told radio interviewer Terry Gross that computers are “not something that should be relegated to 5% of the population over in the corner. It’s something that everybody should be exposed to, everyone should have a mastery of, to some extent.” (p. 65) That posture seems highly relevant today in the context of artificial intelligence, where new consumer applications such as ChatGPT give everyone the possibility of using powerful AI technology. Similarly relevant to this AI moment is his 1983 comment that apart from a few applications for personal computers, “there’s no good reason to buy one for your house right now. But there will be. There will be.” (p. 27)
Make Something Wonderful contains a number of other instructive management takeaways. Among them:
- It’s OK to change your mind completely. In an amazing email exchange, the late Intel CEO Andy Grove pushes back forcibly against Jobs’ asking for money to provide advice to an Intel colleague. Jobs gracefully relents. ”I have changed my position 180 degrees,” he writes to Grove. “Thanks for the clearer perspective.” (p. 59)
- Don’t rush to turn individual contributors into managers. In a 1986 memo to the team at NeXT, where he was CEO, Jobs wrote, “if we turn ourselves into managers instead of ‘do-ers,’ both our schedule and the ‘greatness’ of our product will suffer.” He added, “It is better to have fewer people, even if it means doing less.” (p. 49)
- Set aside a day each week without meetings. In the same memo, Jobs noted, “We all need time for uninterrupted individual work.” He suggested a complete prohibition on meetings on Thursdays. “Thursday is our day, a day when we metaphorically lock the doors to the outside world and quietly work individually.” (p. 49)
- Manage by values. Jobs uses the analogy of taking a trip to explain his approach to management, saying things break down if everyone can’t agree on a common destination. But “management by values” is finding people who want to go to the same place: “You find people that want the same things you want, and then just get the hell out of their way.” (p. 135)
- Hire “great people who love what they do.” “That’s been the most important lesson I’ve learned in business: that the dynamic range of people dramatically exceeds things you encounter in the rest of our normal lives—and to try to find those really great people who really love what they do,” Jobs told Stanford MBA students in 2003. (p. 134)
- “Don’t be a career.” Jobs rails against the “dangerous and stifling” concept of the career. “Many [people] find what they believe to be safe harbors (lawyers and accountants), only to wake up 10 or 15 years later and discover the price they paid,” he told Palo Alto High School graduates in 1996. “Make your avocation your vocation. Make what you love your work.” (p. 73)
To be sure:
- Make Something Wonderful primarily contains interviews and talks such as commencement speeches, which were mostly already public.
- The book was edited by historian Leslie Berlin, with an introduction by Laurene Powell Jobs, and is meant to be a tribute to Jobs rather than a critical presentation of his life and career.
- “I hope these selections ignite in you the understanding that drove him: that everything that makes up what we call life was made by people no smarter, no more capable, than we are; that our world is not fixed—and so we can change it for the better.” —Laurene Powell Jobs (p. 4)
- “There’s always been this myth that really neat, fun people at home all of [a] sudden get very dull and boring and serious when they come to work, and it’s simply not true. So if we can again inject that liberal-arts spirit into this very serious realm of business, I think it would be a worthwhile contribution.” (p. 28)
- “If you’re going to make something, it doesn’t take any more energy—and rarely does it take more money—to make it really great. All it takes is a little more time. Not that much more. And a willingness to do so, a willingness to persevere until it’s really great.” (p. 36)
- “Whatever it may be, I bet many of you have had some of these intuitive feelings about what you could do with your lives. These feelings are very real, and if nurtured can blossom into something wonderful and magical. A good way to remember these kinds of intuitive feelings is to walk alone near sunset—and spend a lot of time looking at the sky in general. We are never taught to listen to our intuitions, to develop and nurture our intuitions. But if you do pay attention to these subtle insights, you can make them come true.” (p. 72)
- “To know my arc will fall makes me want to blaze while I am in the sky. Not for others, but for myself, for the trail I know I am leaving.” (p. 74)
- “In most cases, strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin. A strength in one situation is a weakness in another, yet often the person can’t switch gears.” (p. 81)
- “ Part of the CEO’s job is to cajole and beg and plead and threaten at times—to do whatever is necessary to get people to see things in a bigger and more profound way than they have, and to do better work than they thought they could do. When they do their best and you don’t think it’s enough, you tell them straight: ‘This isn’t good enough. I know you can do better. You need to do better. Now go do better.’” (p. 81)
- “The engine driving these transformations was a remarkably consistent set of values that Steve held dear: Life is short; don’t waste it. Tell the truth. Technology should enhance human creativity. Process matters. Beauty matters. Details matter. The world we know is a human creation—and we can push it forward.” —editor’s note (p. 85)
- Jobs said this was his favorite quote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” —Aristotle (p. 124)
- “Nobody in their right mind wants to be a manager. It’s true. It’s a lot of work, and you don’t get to do the fun stuff. But the only good reason to be a manager is so some other bozo doesn’t be the manager—and ruin the group you care about.” (p. 135)
- “You can’t plan to meet the people who will change your life. It just happens. Maybe it’s random, maybe it’s fate. Either way, you can’t plan for it. But you want to recognize it when it happens, and have the courage and clarity of mind to grab onto it.” (p. 144)
- “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” (p. 148)
- “That’s maybe the most important thing: to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there, and you’re just going to live in it versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it.” (p. 178)
The bottom line is that Make Something Wonderful demonstrates in detail Jobs’ talent for identifying and communicating the missions of Apple and NeXT, providing valuable lessons for any current or aspiring leader.
You can access Make Something Wonderful for free at the Steve Jobs Archive.