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What Arts Managers Can Learn from Steve Jobs

Jeff Scott

With the recent release of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, and several other bios scheduled to come out in the near future, there’s a lot of discussion on what kind of a manager Jobs was.

While the management of a publicly-traded tech company and that of a nonprofit arts organization may seem worlds apart, there are some basic kernels that arts leaders can take from Steve Jobs’ career.

We’ve heard a lot about Jobs’ so-called “reality distortion field.” He pushed his employees to the max, believing that work that normally would take a month could be done in a few days. While the pressure was too much for many employees, others said it caused them to do some of the best work of their careers.

For arts managers working with limited resources in terms of people, time, and money, the notion of a reality distortion field is probably a familiar one. So many times we find ourselves making something out of almost nothing and hopefully that something is a brilliant work of art. But what is perhaps more significant is how Jobs handled his employees. Not only did he believe that a particular task could get done a certain way in a certain time frame, he believed that his people would be able to accomplish it.

While his particular style of berating employees may not necessarily be what we want to replicate, for an arts manager working with constrained resources it is important to have that belief and confidence in your staff that they can accomplish the goals laid out for them.

Jobs was a man known for his vision. He may not have been a great engineer or programmer himself, but he had a vision of what he wanted his products and company to be. That vision guided Apple, with Jobs being deeply involved in every stage of a product’s development.

Arts leaders must also be people of vision. We must have a vision what we want to accomplish with our organizations, and work to ensure that vision is carried out. If not, then the danger is that we will produce work that is substandard, uninspired, or worse, simply not important.

The business world long respected Jobs for his marketing skill. Apple’s product launches are legendary, combining excitement and drama with the idea that this product (whatever it happened to be) was the most important piece of technology in the world.

Jobs was always at the center of those events, taking the stage to personally introduce the world to the new product and demonstrating why it was so great. He was able to connect with his audience, which grew them as customers and fans. We in the arts should also take the stage to promote our product, and find ways to connect to our audience to turn them into loyal fans. Ultimately, it is our fans that will keep us going.

Finally, there is the oft-quoted commencement address at Stanford that Jobs gave, in which he spoke of the necessity to do what you love in life, since your work will occupy a great deal of your time. Certainly all of us in the arts got into this work out of love for the arts, not because we thought we’d get rich. Yet while this point, like perhaps all the points above are somewhat commonsense for us, it’s still worth reminding ourselves of them from time to time.

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