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Reality distortion field: Steve Jobs is not the only one

The scandal of the Ornge air ambulance service has been making headlines in Canada for the past two years. Edmond Mellina wrote this short commentary for Canadian HR Reporter ( after attending a conference on the Ornge saga. It’s all about leadership.

According to his former right-hand man, ousted Ornge CEO Chris Mazza had one thing in common with the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs — the famous “reality distortion field.”

The original Apple Macintosh development team first used this Star Trek term to describe Jobs’ ability to convince anyone — including himself — of practically anything. Mac team member Andy Hertzfeld explained the reality distortion field as “a confounding melange of a charismatic rhetorical style, an indomitable will and an eagerness to bend any fact to fit the purpose at hand.”

It is not easy for someone to drive major change in the public sector. There is no doubt Mazza’s reality distortion field acted as a key force towards the ambitious transformation
of Ontario’s old air ambulance service.

Despite sharing this peculiar trait — or flaw — Mazza and Jobs’ leadership styles differed in two fundamental ways, which helps explain why the Ornge scandal keeps making the news while Apple is ranked first on Fortune magazine’s World’s Most Admired Companies list.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs talks about his passion for simple, clean designs, which launched  a design revolution, with Apple as its spearhead. Jobs made loads of money and became much  admired in the process, with design as his driver, not dollars and fame.

From the Ornge saga, it appears Mazza’s hierarchy of motivations was different. As a doctor, patient care must have been an important consideration. But the story paints a picture of a narcissistic CEO chasing net worth, social praise and power.

Research has shown self-centered leaders ultimately damage their organizations. Jobs also had a narcissistic tendency but designing beautiful, easy-to-use products — not fuelling his ego — was his primary preoccupation.

Throughout his career, Jobs worked hard at ensuring his teams were made of “A-players” — starting from the top. As a result, he waged a nasty but effective war against the people he referred to as “bozos.” As examples: the way he built the original Mac team; his clashes with Apple CEOs John Sculley and Gil Amelio; and the way he protected the people he brought from NeXT to Apple.

Jobs could be toxic and even “twisted” in the way he responded to disagreements or different ideas. Yet the people he respected could challenge him, keep him grounded or change his mind.

Most narcissistic CEOs surround themselves with yes-people who feed their ego and allow their pursuit of net worth, social praise and power to continue unobstructed.

The essence of leadership includes the following: having your organization’s purpose and health as your primary preoccupation; surrounding yourself with the best people you can find; and welcoming their challenges.

At Ornge, Mazza was in a leadership role but didn’t act as a leader. Conversely, Jobs acted as a leader — which helped keep his dark side under control.


Headshot Of Edmond Mellina, ORCHANGO's President & Co-Founder

Edmond is ORCHANGO's president & co-founder.

He is internationally respected for his expertise in nimble change leadership and culture change. For the past 30 years, he has been executing strategic transformations, building agile capabilities, and advising clients across sectors in Europe, North America and the Middle East.

He is a former corporate transformation executive in drastically changing industries: CIO at Delta Hotels when Expedia disrupted the hotel business; and VP Corporate Development & General Manager USA for the technology business of Envoy Communication Group when design and marketing agencies started to become digital.

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