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Admit Nothing: Debunking the Infallible Leader

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There is a phenomenon in leadership, known as the “Reality Distortion Field.” The term describes a level of charismatic self-assurance so overwhelming and nigh delusional that no criticism can penetrate it, and those in its path are powerless to withstand the hype.

In this sphere, any ambition is attainable, every idea a masterpiece and any setback a negligible distraction. Such overconfidence might seem absurd on paper, but in practice it is embraced as an exceptional quality. But not everyone can get ahead simply by putting perception in a chokehold.

The term’s origin should come as no surprise: Apple drones coined it in the early 1980s to illustrate the belligerent influence of Steve Jobs. “In his presence,” as one minion put it, “reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything.” If complex tasks were scheduled in an unrealistic time frame, Jobs deemed it eminently doable; should evidence show Steve was wrong, he bent the facts to prove himself right.

Over time, claims of “Reality Distortion” have been applied to other Silicon Valley honchos. Apple’s chief rival, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, is most notable for displays of boundless, sweaty confidence that somehow captivate industry audiences. So too is Larry Ellison, who has recently taken to harshly doling out unsolicited criticism of peers in the press (who willingly take his word as gospel).

Given their collective achievements, one might think that there’s something to the obstinate approach. In truth, they serve as outliers. Without true knowledge and ability, a cocksure leader is a liability.

Recall LifeLock CEO Todd Davis: So sure was he of his company’s identity theft protection system, Davis freely listed his social security number in television and print ads. Certainly some employees must have expressed misgivings about such a bold claim, yet Davis laid down the gauntlet. As a result, his identity was stolen thirteen times, embarrassing the company and leaving a shameful trail of fraudulent debt in his wake.

Davis assumed his confidence would carry the product. But while leaders should inspire faith, the “Reality Distortion” mindset goes a step further—even an inkling of doubt signifies weakness. This is seen in the political arena, where candidates attract slurs like “flip-flopper” over slight shifts in policy. Some contenders will stick to a line in the hope they can alter voter perceptions, no matter the risk of being caught, or the cost to their credibility.

New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino is one such stubborn figure, campaigning on a “kitchen sink strategy” of persistent accusations against his opponent, Andrew Cuomo. When Paladino claimed to know of marital infidelities by Cuomo, the press asked for proof. He belligerently demurred, until eventually admitting that his allegation was hypothetical and had no substance—only to resume the lie in subsequent television appearances. For his arrogant zeal, Paladino’s prospects are on the decline. Recent polls show him trailing Cuomo, with the gap ever widening as Election Day approaches.

Leading through sheer force of overbearing will also carries a particularly undesirable side-effect: Volatility. Intimidation and abuse rank high as motivation for staff to fall in step with one’s ineffable vision, and screaming tantrums are not unheard of in these environments. Steve Jobs is himself given to rages that drive some to the verge of tears, and drive down the happiness index in Cupertino.

In his 2007 book The No Asshole Rule, author Robert Sutton deems Jobs’ effectiveness as an exception to the eponymous rule, yet acknowledges the Apple leader’s reputation for humiliating staff. Sutton otherwise promotes a prevailing wisdom that puts employee satisfaction first: Happy workers are productive and creative workers, while abuse drives up employee turnover (and potential lawsuits).

As much as budding leaders may wish to become a Jobs or Ellison, it’s not their hubris that should be emulated. Whether you attribute it to a unique confluence of factors or simply uncanny mutant powers, success didn’t come from their willfulness alone. Ultimately, they possessed intelligence and skill. Blustering may get you through the door, but ability is what builds great computers, great products and great companies.
— Alex Tuttle, Vault.com

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Written by A.A. Somebody

October 20, 2010 at 8:13 am

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