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Staff Health

Enough with the Reality Distortion Field

The reality distortion field is a major part of the legend of Steve Jobs. While it makes a great story, it's poor leadership with disastrous consequences.


Lessons from Theranos, Part 3

This is my third, and final, takeaway from John Carreyrou's Bad Blood:Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. The book is a compelling read and offers a case study in poor leadership and toxic culture that church leaders would be wise to learn from. The first take away focused on high staff turnover and the second warned of cultures that discourage honest and open communication. The third takeaway is actually a bit of a soapbox issue for me.

Steve Jobs is somewhat of a legend. The storied businessman who oversaw the rise of Apple seems to have thousands of disciples in every industry and discipline. The biography and movie that came out shortly after his death helped to ensure that this larger than life personality still influences our culture to this day. Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, seemed to drink in the mythology of Jobs more than most. Holmes seemed to imagine herself as the second coming of Steve Jobs. She dressed like him, spoke like him, and even began naming her devices after Apple products. She wanted to be just like Steve Jobs. She even had her own reality distortion field.

Wikipedia describes the reality distortion field this way:

The reality distortion field was said by Andy Hertzfeld to be Steve Jobs's ability to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence. It was said to distort an audience's sense of proportion and scales of difficulties and made them believe that the task at hand was possible. Jobs could also use the reality distortion field to appropriate other's ideas as his own, sometimes proposing an idea to its originator after dismissing it the week before.

In the case of Theranos, the reality distortion field consisted of Elizabeth Holmes and COO Ramesh Balwani refusing to believe anything other than their most optimistic assessments of the product that they were developing and ensuring that anyone who did not believe those assessments were insulated from the outside world. This reality distortion field allowed her to mislead the board of directors, business partners, and government agencies about the true state of affairs at Theranos and the capabilities of their device.

After the Jobs biography came out I heard people celebrating the reality distortion field and suggesting that every leader needed to employ this strategy. I have watched as church leaders refuse to accept no for an answer and fearlessly press forward towards a goal regardless of their team's energy level, having the necessary resources, or having enough time to accomplish the goal.

Church leaders, we have got to stop this.

We have all seen far too many church leaders who lead solely out of charisma, charm, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence destroy their churches, their families, and the faith of their followers. The reality distortion field is a ministry killer... and truth be told, it didn't work out so well for Steve Jobs or Elizabeth Holmes in the end.

On June 14th (Flag Day!) Theresa and I will celebrate eleven years of marriage. One of the reasons that Theresa is such a great partner for me is that she regularly destroys my reality distortion field. Theresa fearlessly tells me the truth, even when I don't want to hear it. She keeps me grounded and she lets me know when I am leading solely out of charisma, charm, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence... and reminds me that if I meet my goals in an unhealthy way, we still lose.

Our ability to lead in a healthy, sustainable manner depends on our willingness to have others speak truth into our lives and realize that their are things that are more important than merely accomplishing our goals.

Who has the power to destroy your reality distortion field?



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Matt Steen

Matt Steen

Matt has served the local church for over two decades as a youth pastor, church planter, and executive pastor. Originally from Baltimore, Matt currently lives in Orlando, with his wife Theresa, and has a B.S. in Youth Ministry from Nyack College and an M.Div. and MBA from Baylor University. Certified as an Urban Church Planter Coach by Redeemer City to City and as a StratOp facilitator by the Paterson Center, Matt has made a career of helping churches thrive through intentionality, clarity, and creating healthy cultures. He is convinced that a healthy church is led by a healthy team with great chemistry, and loves partnering with Chemistry’s churches to do great things for the Kingdom.

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