Steve Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field: Leadership or Bullying?

Jim Taggart's picture

Steve Jobs by Walter IsaacsonI was born in 1955, the same year as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.

As a fellow cohort a few things distinguish me from them: I’m a lot shorter, far less wealthy, not nearly as smart, nowhere near the visionary, and the list goes on. Plus, I’m a boring Canadian.

Having already read a lot on Jobs in recent weeks, and despite all the media hoopla following his death, I still bought his new biography as soon as it was on the shelves. Author Walter Isaacson’s 600-plus page tomb, with the minimalist title “Steve Jobs”, is an excellent account of Jobs’ complex life. (Isaacson also wrote an excellent biography on Albert Einstein).

It’s worthwhile to note that Jobs hounded Isaacson for over five years to write his biography (which ended up being produced from some 40 interviews with Jobs). It was Jobs’ wife, Laurene, who in 2009 finally laid it out for Isaacson why he needed to start on the biography as soon as possible.

Rather than tear through the book I’ve decided to read it slowly, savoring the countless stories and anecdotes, some which are humorous, some sad and others that piss you off when you realize how big an asshole Steve Jobs could be.

But the main reason I bought the book is because I’m reading it through a leadership lens. Steve Jobs’ treatment of not just employees but friends and business partners was often appalling. Yet his achievements over 35-plus years (with some intermittent problems) were incredible. This conflicts in a major way with the leadership literature, where treating people with respect and as human beings, not inanimate objects, is a key cornerstone. Jobs, somehow, was able to motivate people (employees and business partners) to produce far beyond what was initially thought possible. And he did this by often berating and belittling them.

Jobs was a visionary and a perfectionist. You learn a lot about why he became who he was through Isaacson’s recounting of Jobs’ upbringing as an adopted child. However, his detached, often brutal, immature behavior is still a mystery. Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field, coined for his ability to bend reality in order that his underlings accomplish what he demanded, was demonstrated on numerous occasions when he was told that something was not possible, or could not be done within a short timeframe.

Bud Tribble, a software designer under Jobs, adapted the Reality Distortion Field expression from Star Trek. As Tribble explained to Andy Hertfeld, who had just joined the Macintosh team and who expressed his disbelief with Jobs’ unrealistic product release deadline of January 1982, “Steve has a reality distortion field. In his presence, reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything. It wears off when he’s not around, but it makes it hard to have realistic schedules.”

What’s intriguing is how Jobs broke the so-called leadership rulebook by not inspiring or coaching employees to achieve something, and instead flatly insisting that it could and would be done. Negotiation was out. Failure was not an option. Naysayers were turfed.

Steve Wozniak (aka “Woz”), who co-founded Apple, explains it this way: “ reality distortion is when he has an illogical vision of the future, such as telling me that I could design the Breakout game in just a few days. You realize that it can’t be true, but he somehow makes it true.”

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through. (Paul Jobs)

Jobs’ use of foul language and insults were well known. His typical remark to an engineer was “This is shit!” This is clearly not the most desirable way to provide feedback. However, Apple employees (at least some) learned that what Jobs was really trying to say was “Tell me why this is the best way to do it.” What Jobs was attempting was to challenge employees to be creative and to find the optimal way to achieve something – to make something perfect.

Some employees learned to push back, sometimes really hard. Jobs would buckle if presented with a compelling case. Of course this took a lot of courage and self-confidence. As Apple manufacturing manager Debi Coleman, who stood up to Jobs, enthused: “ would shout at a meeting, ‘You asshole, you never do anything right.’ It was like an hourly occurrence. Yet I consider myself the absolute luckiest person in the world to have worked for him.”

Steve Jobs’ approach to inspiring his employees was indeed bizarre. Yet as Isaacson states: “It infused Apple employees with an abiding passion to create groundbreaking products and a belief that they could accomplish what seemed impossible. They had T-shirts made that read ’90 hours a week and loving it.’”

Jobs learned from his original Macintosh team that A-plus players prefer to work together and won’t tolerate B-quality work. And to design and create consummate consumer products – his never-ending quest for perfection (ingrained in him by his father, Paul Jobs) – you need the best people.

It’s easy for us to question Jobs’ motivational tactics, which were jaw-dropping at times. But then look at how he resuscitated Apple which was on the brink of death in the nineties, and then led it to be the most valuable company in the world. Whether CEO Tim Cook and his executive team can propel Apple forward with the same velocity is doubtful, especially given mounting global competition for consumer products.

Rather than smirk at his Reality Distortion Field, perhaps there’s something to learn from how Steve Jobs approached leadership. There are long entrails of vision-less CEOs who beat up employees, decimating their organizations, while living for quarter-to-quarter results. And then exiting with golden parachutes.

Steve Jobs was far from perfect. Later in life, towards the end, he shared some of his misgivings with Isaacson, acknowledging his mistakes. He was one of the greatest enigmas as a corporate leader. What he lacked in people skills and empathy, he made up for with a compelling vision for the future and the pursuit of excellence. He clearly has left an indelible mark on society.

Reflect on the following words from Steve Jobs, shared with Walter Isaacson. Keep in perspective that at age 25 Jobs was worth $256 million. In the fall of 2011 his net worth was an estimated $7 billion.

"I never worried about money. I grew up in a middle-class family, so I never thought I would starve. And I learned at Atari that I could be an okay engineer, so I knew I could always get by. I was voluntarily poor when I was in college and India, and I lived a pretty simple life even when I was working. So I went from fairly poor, which was wonderful, because I didn’t have to worry about money, to being incredibly rich, when I also didn’t have to worry about money.

I watched people at Apple who made a lot of money and felt they had to live differently. Some of them bought a Rolls-Royce and various houses, each with a house manager and then someone to manage the house managers. Their wives got plastic surgery and turned into these bizarre people. This was not how I wanted to live. It’s crazy. I made a promise to myself that I’m not going to let this money ruin my life.

Steve Jobs was about simplicity in life – something from which we could all learn.