People who worked closely with Steve Jobs referred to his creation of “reality distortion fields;” demanding an outcome that looked impossible to achieve, but then sometimes actually achieving it. The co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak described the term vividly: “Jobs’ reality distortion is when he has an illogical vision of the future, such as telling me that I can design a game in just a few days. You realize it can’t be true, but he somehow makes is true.”
Sometimes this worked for Jobs. His technical people swore there was no way to decrease the boot-up time of the Macintosh, but when Jobs went into a “reality distortion” rage, demanding progress, they found a way to cut 28 seconds.
But… sometimes it didn’t work. In January, 1983 when Jobs and his team were developing the Macintosh, they decided to use a new 3 1/2 inch disk drive, recently available from Sony. Jobs didn’t want to work with big, powerful Sony; he favored a small Japanese supplier, Alps Equipment, who Jobs claimed they could design and develop a less-expensive clone of the Sony drive in time for the launch in January, 1984. The Apple developers said such quick development was impossible. Jobs went into his usual rage, demanded that Apple have their own 3 ½ drive via Alps, claimed that Alps would have no problems making the schedule, and ordered all work with Sony cease.
In May, 1983, Alps admitted they would need at least 18 more months to develop the drive. Fortunately for Jobs, the Macintosh team was so skeptical of Alps that it had a secret agreement with Sony to prepare for being the disk supplier. Jobs swallowed his pride and thanked the team.
Here’s the lesson: Gutsy leaders push hard to achieve the apparent impossible results but they do it smartly, protecting against the downside, and they do it without chewing up people (as Wozniak put it: “Steve’s contributions could have been made without so many stories about him terrorizing folks”).