Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” —T. S. Eliot
What is Reality Editing?
Reality editing is the process of
reframing, reconfiguring or “spinning” the “facts” such that they support a plausible, attractive but highly selective narrative, which, predictably, features the leader at the center of the narrative, always in control, always right, and above critique.
Reality-editing leaders instinctively recognize the power of a narrative to shape the daily life of the organization and the interactions of those in it—he who controls the narrative controls the organization.
The Personal Affliction.
The reality-editing affliction has its roots in emotional immaturity and destructive narcissism. Leaders with this affliction lack sufficient emotional realism to process “the real world as it really is.” In an act of emotional self-defense,
they distort reality to confirm their dark suspicions, support their fragile ego, and affirm their grandiose expectations.
Reality editors are easily threatened by negative feedback, which is a direct challenge to their self-regard. And, due to low emotional maturity, they fail to take responsibility for the outcomes of their attitudes and actions. For the reality editor, the facts must be “edited” to serve the larger script, which supports the leader’s elevated self-regard and protects his or her idealized self from facts and outcomes that call the leader’s judgment and actions into question. Consequently, the spun narrative, regardless of its specific content, is predictable in its major theme: the leader can do no wrong; their judgments are always correct; and if problems occur others are at fault.
Like all destructive narcissists, the reality editor’s narrative spinning work is shaped by an unhealthy sense of self, typified by arrogance and self-absorption, and an inordinate need for admiration, even adulation.
Preoccupied with bolstering a fragile and insecure self, the reality editor is devoted to constructing narratives that conform to their idealized self, exaggerated self-importance, unrealistic expectations, and grandiose ambitions.
Toward this end, the reality-editing leader utilizes their considerable energy, talent and creativity to spin convincing narratives that, predictably, feature them as superior leaders—in control, all wise and above reproach.
The Organizational Affliction.
Reality-editing leaders afflict the organization by setting in motion four destructive patterns in organizational life.
First, the reality-editing leader lives in a world of their own making, and imposes this false reality on the organization. Reality editing leaders play the revisionist historian by distorting the facts or revising the interpretation of events to insure that “reality” conforms to their narrative. For the reality editor,
Reality is what I say it is.”
Napoleon, a world-class reality-editor, is case in point. As one of his generals reflected,
In many a circumstance, to wish something and believe it, were for him one and the same thing.”
Lyndon Johnson possessed a similar talent for editing reality. A colleague observed,
He had a fantastic capacity to persuade himself that the ‘truth’ which was convenient for the present was the truth and anything that conflicted with it was the prevarication of enemies. He literally willed what was in his mind to become reality.”
Consequently, organizations led by reality-editors operate in a world of the leader’s own making, not the “real reality.”
Second, insulated from the “real world,” the reality-editing leader does not, cannot learn from experience. A powerful and pervasive organizational principle comes into play to increase the insulation of the reality editor, and, sadly, maximize his or her “afflicting impact” on the organization. It is called the filter principle, which states that the higher a leader goes in an organization, the more insulated he or she becomes from performance feedback. (This is less likely to happen at lower levels of the organization where members have direct access to the consequences of their decisions and actions).
Many top leaders assume that if their decisions or performance is in some way deficient someone will tell them the unvarnished truth. It is not uncommon for members to withhold, adjust or spin information to conform to the leader’s narrative out of fear that the messenger bearing bad news might be, figuratively, shot. As movie producer Samuel Goldwyn once told his staff,
I don’t want any yes-men around me. I want everybody to tell me the truth even if it costs them their jobs.”
It’s understandable if members don’t consider the risk worth taking.
So, while it is counter-intuitive, top leaders have to work harder than most to get a steady supply of candid and constructive performance feedback.
But, the reality-editing leader, interpreting circumstances and outcomes through the rose-colored lens of their self-serving narrative, sees no need to get the feedback in the first place. Of emotional necessity, reality editors must be right and are consequently incapable of receiving critique and considering input that challenges their self-serving, self-promoting narrative. Dissent, even loyal dissent must be banished from the camp. Predictably, Lyndon Johnson shrank his circle of advisors to those who agreed with him on his handling of the Viet Nam war.
In combination with the filter principle, the reality-editing affliction makes it all but impossible for the leader to learn from feedback. The outcome is potentially lethal both for the leader as well as the organization.
Top leaders who would rather be right than effective are neither.
They can insist on always being right, at least in their own minds, or they can embrace feedback and make the necessary adjustments to stay effective in the real world. But they can’t have it both ways.
Third, the reality-editing leader re-interprets troubling information to protect themselves and at times, the organization from bad news. While the filter principle shields top leaders from most of the bad news, some of it is bound to get through, and most of it becomes evident to the organization sooner than later. But here, the reality editor is at his or her best. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s wise Chinese character Lee quotes his father’s observation on the ancient art of reality editing.
The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar.”
Reality editing leaders raise to the level of art form the practice of
twisting life so that it looks sweet.”
Substituting their narrative spinning ability for the exercise of candor, reality editors excel at putting a positive spin on negative information. At times this is perfectly understandable. As T. S. Eliot observed in Four Quartets,
Human kind Cannot bear very much reality.”
Meaning well and in the hope of protecting the organization from bad news, the reality-editing leader may perpetrate the illusion that things are not so bad, that problems can be engineered away and that there is a painless way forward.
Or, more ominously, some reality editors spin a self-serving narrative to protect a fragile ego—as in
Things can’t be going so wrong because I never make mistakes, and if truth be told, I simply can’t deal with the possibility that my decisions might be the cause.”
Due to deficits in emotional maturity, most reality-editing leaders need to protect their public image as a powerful, all-wise person in charge of events and immune from error. Fearing failure more than they love candor, they spin a narrative that “adjusts” the facts such that the leader is always right even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary.
Consequently, the reality editor “creatively readjusts” information, withholds it or times its release such that it serves their interests rather than the interests of the organization.
Fourth, reality-editing leaders use their narrative-spinning ability to coerce and manipulate individuals and at times entire organizations to “see things their way.”
False narratives often have surprising staying power—the Soviet Communist narrative lasted 70 years and still persists in a number of countries despite a global demonstration of its ineffectiveness. But, eventually most “spun narratives” start to crumble under the accumulated weight of indisputable facts and undeniable outcomes. When the explanatory power of the narrative is challenged, reality editors go into high gear, employing two organization-afflicting strategies to protect their narrative against competing versions of reality. Check back to read our next blog, we will discuss the main strategies of reality editing and bending and the consequences of reality-editing leaders.