A version of this article first appeared at Inc.com.
Every great leader possesses a degree of what Walter Isaacson (in his biography of Steve Jobs) describes as ‘an ability to distort reality’.
What Isaacson meant is that Jobs forced his will on Apple, often pushing people to create things they never thought possible – a powerful asset in any leader. But that ‘reality distortion effect’ works both ways: it also means that every leader, to a greater or lesser degree, distorts the reality around themselves, leading to tensions, inconsistency, and at worst, bad decisions.
There are two reasons why leaders who live in a bubble become so dangerous to themselves and those they lead:
First, the most insidious aspect of this blurring of reality is that it happens in seemingly mundane ways which are hard to spot, but which have far-from mundane consequences to the group, team or organization being led.
Second, the bubble effect is directly proportional to the ability of the leader: the better they are at what they do, the larger the bubble grows, and the harder it becomes to burst. (Peers and colleagues will readily burst a ‘reality bubble’ of an insecure or less than effective colleague, but the highly successful leader is rarely challenged.)
Here are the 3 things most great leaders get wrong, and which together, place them inside a negative reality distortion field:
1. The time needed to do things.
Visionary leaders work at such strategic heights that they consistently underestimate how long it actually takes to get stuff done. (My estimate is that most visionary leaders have a 7-times perception error: if they say something will take an hour to do, it will actually take a day; if they think a day is enough, it’ll take a week.)
This particular form of reality distortion regularly gets positive play in the media, who love stories of derring-do whereby the hard-charging visionary leader refuses to accept what mere mortals tell them, and instead push their team to superhuman feats of achievement in unheard-of time frames.
Unfortunately, the sad reality is that for every published tale of whip-cracking brilliance there are a thousand exhausted, frazzled teams forced to produce crappy, unsustainable gum-and-glue solutions for no other reason than their leaders inability to tell time.
2. The relative importance of people and ideas.
The second bubble-creating reality distortion that visionary leaders fall prey to is the tendency to categorize everything – every idea, every person – at extremes. An idea is either brilliant or it sucks – there’s no in-between; people are either for us or against us – again, no in-between.
This form of reality distortion is certainly colorful, and can even be fun to watch play out, but for those who get tarred with an extreme negative categorization, based on little or no evidence, it’s demoralizing, and for everyone else it’s just plain confusing.
3. What other people hear you say.
Perhaps the most damaging reality distortion visionary leaders are subject to is an (almost) endearing inability to truly comprehend what others have heard them say.
Weirdly enough, this works on two almost contradictory levels:
At one extreme, visionary leaders – who talk to think – will often engage in an orgy of musing, setting up straw men to test a theory; arguing the point about things they actually believe; positing hypotheticals in order to brainstorm options, all with the net effect of completely confusing those listening, who are left dazed and confused, unclear as to whether they’ve actually been given instructions to do anything.
On the other hand, when they do move into instruction-giving mode, visionary leaders often make the wholly unsubstantiated assumption that everyone around them can read their minds, using opaque, almost mysterious, brief, allusions to convey highly important directives.
Take a look at your interactions with others this week – which of these reality distortion techniques are you engaging in?