In an exclusive 2008 interview, three years before his death to pancreatic cancer, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs spoke about the keys to Apple's success. With the now-CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, by his side, Jobs dropped this little gem on his audience:
My job is not to be easy on people. My job is to make them better.
The path to success is never a stroll in the park, and some of the best bosses are also the toughest, as was Jobs.
But how many executives can actually claim "making people better" as a key business strategy? How many leaders can say their goal is to stretch the growth of people and advance their careers -- basically, make them better, which then filters down to management ranks?
In the business of profit and the profit of business, in burn and churn pressure cookers--then and now--people empowerment and things like "employee engagement" or leadership development aren't even blips on the radar screen. It's survival of the fittest, where individual contributors on the same team have to compete against one another in dog-eat-dog political environments.
Get out of the way
But Jobs knew better. First of all, Jobs believed in hiring the smartest knowledge workers he could find and then getting the heck out of their way -- letting them self-manage and figure things out on their own instead of micromanaging them.
That practice alone separated Jobs--and leaders like him today--from the majority of top-down bosses who have to call the shots and control people and outcomes. Jobs said, "It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do."
A common vision
Jobs then made sure his people had a common vision, that there was consensus on the vision, and that Apple leaders were actively involved in articulating the vision consistently and intently so Apple employees understood it clearly, got excited about it, and felt deep purpose in carrying it out.
In today's decentralized and inclusive work environments where good leaders enroll their followers to express their voice as co-creators and co-contributors to the vision, people feel emotionally invested in it. This empowers and energizes them to freely collaborate and innovate above and beyond the basic requirements of the job. It's what every leader should be after. It's what Jobs clearly understood and leveraged for competitive advantage.
Finally, make them better
These counterintuitive people practices cleared the way to "make them better." By having faith in his people -- that they're basically good and smart--Jobs and Apple's leaders gave workers tools and resources and development to create wonderful things.