The Reality Distortion Field

In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, he talks about the “reality distortion field” that Jobs was able to create around him.

This was a phenomenon that colleagues of Jobs talked about, where he was able to convince both himself and those around him of almost anything, through a combination of charisma, the ability to bend facts for the purpose at hand, and really through the sheer intensity of his passion and his will to believe that something was true.

One example was when Jobs convinced Stephen Wozniak to create a new piece of technology early in their partnership, telling him he only had a few days to complete it (when more realistically it should probably take weeks or months to do so).  Wozniak worked around the clock, and low and behold, he was able to do it on Jobs’ timeline.  Later Woz would say that Steve’s certain belief in something, even if it didn’t seem to make sense, made it possible.

Apparently the reality distortion field sometimes made timetables very difficult at Apple. The timetables that Jobs suggested would make sense when he was in the room, but when he left they seemed completely unrealistic. But Isaacson also points out that the reality distortion field that made it possible for Jobs to revolutionize the computer industry.  This is where vision comes in.

Vision by definition is the ability to see clearly in your mind something that does not yet exist in reality. A powerful vision for the future is something of a reality distortion field, because what you are seeing isn’t really there yet. It’s only there in your mind.

I had a conversation some time ago with Sam Kaner, an expert in multi-stakeholder facilitation, where I told him that I was coaching the CEO of a region of a national nonprofit. Sam advised me: “When you’re coaching her, ask her to talk about her vision. Try to get her to talk about her vision without worrying about how it’s going to happen.” I latched onto this comment from Sam, and I believe that it’s one of the most powerful leadership principles.  If you’re able to see and articulate an extremely clear vision, it is the powerful foundation for a successful enterprise.  It doesn’t have to seem real, or achievable, and you don’t need to know how you will get there.

Another colleague, a senior member of the leadership development team at extremely successful technology company, commented to me on the discussions that take place among the CEO and executive team. “There is a…purity of vision,” he said, and he rubbed his thumb against the fingers of his hand, as if he was holding a gold nugget, feeling its purity. “It’s really not about the money for them.”  But, like Steve Jobs, the purity and force of their vision has created a company that’s extremely valuable.

A vision is so much more than a statement that’s written on a document. Vision changes reality.