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Don Quixote’s Reality Distortion Field: Windmills and iPhones
The final and greatest utterance of the human mind - Fyodor Dostoevsky about Don Quixote
If you’ve read Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes before you’ll know what I mean when I say taking Don Quixote as a leader/searching for leadership lessons in this work of art, at first glance, seems harebrained. Don Quixote “loses his mind”, goes “mad”, his brains “turn to mush”. Not exactly the recipe for a communicative, empathic, or effective leader. Regardless of your first glance though, Professor March’s course on Leadership and Literature took on Don Quixote and it’s the focus of one of his chapters in On Leadership (co-written with Thierry Weil).
What March points us to in Don Quixote is “Reality can be created by action. It need not be taken as given.” In other words, Don Quixote, the man from La Mancha, lived in the original “Reality Distortion Field” (RDF). According to my sometime co-author ChatGPT (whose research I don’t completely trust but happens to jive with my existing understanding of the phrase), the phrase
originated from the tech world, specifically during the early years of Apple Inc. It was used to describe Steve Jobs' charismatic and persuasive ability to shape and influence people's perceptions of reality, making them believe in his grand visions and ideas. The term was popularized during Jobs' tenure at Apple in the 1980s and 1990s. - Link
“Grand visions and ideas,” tilting at windmills/monsters, going off to right wrongs/achieve the impossible, seeing what others don’t see. Reading Don Quixote through the lens of the visionary tech leader is almost hilarious. These driven, tech visionaries have gone mad, their brains have turned to mush, according to those around them? No, they just think and see different(ly).
Taking Don Quixote in this way we have to admit that “visionaries” have been around for 500 years, at the very least, but so what? What place does “vision” and seeing what others don’t, especially seeing that something that at first glance is impossible (but might not in fact be), have in being a leader? Since “leadership” is a too often-used word, let’s ask the question more concretely. What do vision/RDFs have to do with leading a team, a group of teams, an organization, in the 2020s, 500 years after Don Quixote errantly roamed righting wrongs?
Professor March encouraged his MBA students at Stanford’s GSB to see windmills/monsters/giants and reality distortion fields as both being fancy terms for “imagination”. While I don’t consider myself a leader in the sense that I run a company like many of Prof. March’s students would go on to do, I look around myself and my day to day and I do see imagination. What’s more instructive though is to look around your organizational context and imagine your day to day with absolutely 0 imagination.
0 wondering what is possible or impossible. Only facing reactively the next item on the docket, whatever’s rolling down the conveyer belt, heading your way. 0 questions, asking does it have to be this way? What if it were different? More preferable even? While it is not leadership per se, product management author Marty Cagan in his book Inspired talks about product management as combining a unique understanding of customer needs with what happens to be newly technologically possible to create novel value. As a PM you have to imagine what doesn’t yet exist. Little to no imagination starts to sound like a pretty dark place.
Aristotle said, man reaches out/stretches out towards knowing. I see “man” stretching out/reaching out towards the unachievable. The moon, the 5 minute mile, the “welfare” state, arcs of history bending towards justice. I suspect that in each case, someone imagined, someone wondered, what if? Someone asked, there’s got to be a better way. And I further suspect that others, in the face of that “what if” question looked at the asker as Sancho Panza looked at Don Quixote when the knight errant saw a giant beast instead of what Sancho saw, a mere windmill. They must have looked at the wonderer and thought, are you mad? Have you lost your mind? It’s not possible. It’s not a giant. It’s a bloody windmill you looneytune.
Every time I read Don Quixote I laugh a lot. His level of “crazy” produces all sorts of hilarity. At one point Quixote and Sancho projectile puke in each others’ faces like a Three Stooges bit. Every time I read Don Quixote I also sleuth to answer my question “is Don Quixote, really crazy?” Has he properly lost his mind? I almost play a game with Cervantes. I smile each time his chess move is to relate a lengthy, intelligent conversation Quixote has with someone clearly showing he’s in his right mind. Cervantes coyly says to me in these moments, see, he’s fine. He’s not mad. He knows what’s going on and who he is and what’s what. But he also believes devoutly. He also imagines. And in doing so he makes the unreal or the yettobe real real. He performs magic. He achieves the impossible. He creates a field in which reality is distorted but in which wowing achievements are achieved. And what is a great organization if not achieving what wows us?
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra Translated by Edith Grossman
On Leadership by James G March and Thierry Weil