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Posted by Steve Zaffron & Gregory Unruh | July 15, 2020 8:35:13 AM EDT


A Fresh Take on Steve Jobs’ “Reality Distortion Field”

Steve Jobs achieved legendary status, not only from his innovations in computing but also in music, film, telecom, animation and publishing.  Management lore attributes much of his success to a reality distortion field, a term given by Apple designer Bud Tribble to describe Jobs’ “charisma and its effects on the developers working on the Macintosh project.”  Apple developer Andy Hertzfeld claims Jobs’ ability “to convince himself and others to believe almost anything” resulted from a mix of “charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence.”

For executives wishing to emulate Jobs, this mesmeric explanation is not very helpful. The advice could be reduced to “become powerfully charismatic.” But beyond its inapplicability, the explanation does a disservice to Jobs’ fundamental discovery, which he explains in a 1994 Silicon Valley Historical Association interview; “When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your job in life is just to live your life inside that world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. But that's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you … once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.”

Jobs discovered that life is not a given but is instead malleable and used that insight to become a sculptor of reality.  “The minute that you understand that you can poke life and … if you push it, something will pop out the other side,” says Jobs, “… you can change it. You can mold it. Maybe the most important thing is to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you're just going to live in it.”

Jobs’ success as a leader lay in his ability to make the malleability of life available, not just for himself, but for other people.  It was not charisma, but an ability to alter the way situations occur for others that allowed Jobs to transform entire industries.

The medium through which he made this happen was his speaking. In a very real sense, Jobs was able to speak new realities into being for people. Through his speaking the possibility of Macs and iPhones became real for others such that they could act on that possibility. Speaking sounds simple, but Jobs used his speaking differently than you and I do. 

Most of our speaking is used to describe things. When we describe a situation, we are defining the way it “is” for us and in doing so we constitute the reality of a situation for ourselves by what we say to ourselves about that situation. If we say to ourselves that “we’ve tried to resolve this issue in the past and everything we tried didn’t work,” then the situation we are facing occurs to us as “hopeless.” And, as Erhard and Jensen[i] point out, if the situation occurs as hopeless, then our actions will be correlated with our linguistic reality of “hopeless.” Our interpretation fulfills itself in diminished performance.

In contrast, Jobs used speaking, not to describe, but to create. Jobs wasn’t describing the way things “are.” Instead he created for his listeners the way he envisioned reality in the future. It is as if Jobs was actually inhabiting his envisioned future, looking around and speaking back through time to his listeners. In doing so he transformed how the situation occurred for the people listening in the present. In Job’s words, he was pushing on life from the future and a new reality was popping out on the other side back in the present.

As Job’s co-workers adopted his future-based perspective, doors began opening that had appeared closed from their present perspective. Stories of Jobs speaking a different reality for people are commonplace. Apple designers would frequently find themselves confronted with a situation that occurred insolvable and then Jobs would speak and the problem transformed. According to Apple’s Tony Fadell, “There would be times when we’d rack our brains on a user interface problem, and (Jobs) would go, ‘Did you think of this?’ And then we’d all go, ‘Holy shit.’ He’d redefine the problem or approach, and our little problem would go away.”

You may take this as a brilliant Steve Jobs employing logic, but you’d miss the deeper phenomenon at work. Logic works by describing a reasoned course of action.  Altering the way in which a situation is occurs for people is, in contrast, a holistic experience.

You can see this in how Jobs recruited both John Scully and Tim Cook to Apple.  Jobs did not logically explain the job, the salary, the stock options and corporate perks, but instead worked in the realm of how the job could occur to them. From Scully’s initial perspective, for example, when Jobs came calling he was at the pinnacle of corporate power having served as the President of global giant Pepsi. But Jobs completely overturned this perspective saying famously, "Would you rather sell sugar water to kids for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?" With Jobs’ words, Scully went from the commanding heights of business to a junk food peddler. It occurred to Scully that there was far more he could achieve in his life at Apple.

Similarly, for Tim Cook, logic wasn’t paramount. In 1998 Cook was a VP of the world's leading PC maker Compaq. Apple was on the brink of failure. “Any purely rational consideration of cost and benefits lined up in Compaq's favor, and the people who knew me best advised me to stay at Compaq," Yet Cook met with Jobs remembering, "… all of a sudden he's talking about his strategy and his vision. The way that he talked, and the way the chemistry was in the room, it was just he and I … And so, all of a sudden, I thought, I'm doing it. I'm going for it...." Jobs had altered the way the opportunity occurred for Cook. Apple "didn't make sense," Cook said, “And yet, my gut said, go for it. And I listened to my gut." Jobs’ linguistic conjuring of Apple’s future and Cook’s role in it occurred holistically differently than the logical arguments mustered against the move by his mentors.


What About You?

Transforming reality in empowering ways is a discipline that can be developed through practice[ii]. You can begin by first paying attention to the way in which the world is occurring for others. If employees are behaving in ways that undermine performance, wonder about how the situation must occur for them. Imagine for yourself first and then ask them. You will begin to see that discovering how people perceive a situation is more critical than what you think you know about the situation.

Perhaps more important is seeing the power of occurring at work with yourself. Doing so requires that you purposefully stop and observe the way you are being and then ask “how must this situation occur to me given the way that I am being right now?” How must you be perceiving your suppliers, for instance, such that you are annoyed? Once you gain some facility in noticing yourself, you can begin experimenting with altering the way things are occurring for you. Ask questions like, “If I were feeling empowered in this situation, how would it have to occur for me?” Then see if you can create that occurrence for yourself.

Over time, as your effectiveness grows, you may find yourself channeling Steve Jobs and conjuring your own organizational realities. You’ll do so by experimenting with your speaking about the occurrence of situations, saying things like “This is how the situation occurs to me…” instead of saying this “is” how the situation is. You will know you are having an effect when people join in. When they co-create the occurrence with you, you may find yourselves operating in a whole new world.


[i] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2434250

[ii] Zaffron, S. and Logan, D. (2009) The Three Laws of Performance – Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass



Steve Zaffron, co-author of the best-selling book “The Three Laws of Performance”, Founder of the Vanto Group, one of Forbes’ “America’s Best Management Consulting Firms 2020 “

Gregory Unruh, Ph.D.,  Arison Professor of Values Leadership, George Mason University, Guest Sustainability Editor, MIT Sloan Management Review


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