Thursday, November 19, 2015

Steve Jobs and the Leadership Question, Part II: The Reality Distortion Field

                                Note:  Part I of this post is below.

            Steve Jobs was famous among his own company and colleagues for what came to be called his “reality distortion field.”  This was meant to refer to a conviction so passionate in Jobs on any given particular point or belief that he could sweep others up in it, in spite of their own doubts.  Another way to describe this is with the simpler term often used in psychology:  grandiosity.  Jobs believed in his own superior vision and creativity above all others.  He had a grand sense that he was destined to create the future.  This belief in itself was sufficient to make him unable to deeply consider a lot of the very valid ideas and objections of those around him.  A very clear example of this is the way the original MacIntosh computer was brought out.  It was introduced by a 60 Second ad debuting at the Superbowl XVIII in 1984, and it was titled, simply, 1984.  It was revolutionary, indeed, as an ad and has won that recognition—widely considered the greatest TV ad of all time in its depiction of a “Big Brother” kind of world shattered by a young female athlete hurling a hammer to shatter the image of the mind-controlling leader.  Heady stuff, for sure.  But in reality (a term with dubious value around Jobs) there were serious flaws in the Mac.  It had no hard drive.  It had only 128 K RAM of memory (whereas the previously introduced Lisa had 1000 K RAM).  It also had only one slot for a floppy disk.  It also had no fan because of Jobs’ objection to the sound, and consequently became known as “the beige toaster” because of its tendency to overheat.   The fact that these features became “baked in” to the final product is attributed solely to what Isaacson refers to as “Jobs’ dogmatic stubbornness”, since plenty of objections were raised by his own engineers in the developmental process.  Consequently, though the Mac had a successful initial run, its sales fell off dramatically. 
                Every great visionary challenges the limits of the current “reality” as it is generally accepted by the culture.  But a visionary characterized by a persistent sense of grandiosity and an accompanying entrenched defensive stubbornness is likely to have a very difficult learning curve as he travels from the heights of his own grandiose ideas down to the gritty reality of how things actually play out in the market place.  He is more likely to experience temporary success, followed by deep disappointment and then blame others for the failure.  This resonates with what psychologist Alice Miller describes as the cycle from grandiosity to depression in her book, The Drama of the Gifted Child.  It is probably a waste of time to consider a lot of the “ifs” in life.  However, in this case, it is hard not to imagine the MacIntosh would have been a much greater success if Jobs had listened to those who told him it needed more RAM, a fan, a hard drive and two disk slots instead of one.  Surely, it would have been far more successful than it actually was.  It is even possible that demonstrating an ability to listen to his people and work more collaboratively, as opposed to dictatorially, he would have grown into his position to the point that John Sculley and the Board of Directors might never have made him uncomfortable enough to resign.
                After Jobs returned to Apple from his “exile” to NeXt and Pixar, he had undoubtedly gone through some maturing, given the unprecedented string of successes that followed, beginning with the iPod and running all the way up to the various versions of the iPad, iPhone and iMac desktops and laptops, the introduction of iTunes and the Apple Stores. Of course, his genius was never in question and should not be today.  And we may allow that with age and experience, with marrying and having children, and especially facing his mortality as he had to deal with cancer, some of the sharp edges may have come off his way of leading.  But I can find no evidence that his overall style made a transformation to the kind of brilliant, visionary and humanistic leadership that should be the model for all of us. 
                Steve Jobs, at present and for the forseeable future, occupies a large space in the firmament of leadership.  The “if” of who he might have been and how different the arc of his personal and professional lives might have been had he ever found a way to heal some of the dark chaos within him is compelling.  We should engage it fully and encourage students and young leaders alike to do the same. 

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