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'Am I delusional?': How to get honest answers according to the former CEO of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC

David Novak   

'Am I delusional?': How to get honest answers according to the former CEO of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC
  • The former CEO of Yum! Brands Inc. David Novak increased the company's market cap by $28 billion.
  • In the award-winning executive's new book "How Leaders Learn," Novak shares insights for leadership.

Shortly after Wendy and I got engaged, I went to Louisville to meet her parents. She was anxious to know what kind of impression I'd made, so at the first opportunity, she pulled her mother aside and said, "So, what do you think?" At that moment, they could hear me trash-talking her two brothers, Jeff and Rick, as we played basketball in the driveway.

"Well," my future mother-in-law, Anne, replied, "he's a very loud man."

She was right. Wendy says I'm like a big puppy dog, jumping around, barking, and wagging its tail. When you're in a position of leadership, that kind of enthusiasm can get you into trouble because people confuse it with excessive optimism, even delusion. They can assume you don't want to hear about the bubble-bursting realities of a situation — even if all you want is the truth.

Here's an example: I'm incredibly proud of my podcast, "How Leaders Lead." I think the conversations are inspiring and helpful to leaders around the world. Ask me about it, and you'll hear (and see) my enthusiasm pour out. After building it for a year, we hired an experienced podcast producer and brand builder, Tim Schurrer, who is now the CEO of David Novak Leadership, to help us improve it. During one meeting, when we were still getting to know each other, I asked him how we could improve. I could tell he was hemming and hawing. He gave me vague answers. I finally said, "Tim, the only thing I care about is getting to the best possible product. What do you think we should do?" That made it safe for him to give me the reality: compared to other highly successful podcasts, he said, our intros and outros just weren't good enough. We weren't drawing people in with a big idea to get them excited, and we weren't leaving them with a clear takeaway. It was hurting our audience engagement. "OK," I said. "What do we do to fix it?" He gave us a better model, we implemented it right away, and it made our podcast better.

Active learners deal in reality. They recognize an essential truth: delusional people don't learn well. They work hard to follow the often repeated advice of my mentor at Yum!, Andy Pearson: learn to see the world the way it really is, not how you wish it to be. If you assume that the best ideas and soundest knowledge are based in reality, what are the chances that you're going to be open to them if you're clinging to what you wish rather than acknowledging what is? And how can you possibly know where or how to grow and learn if you don't know your starting point?

Unfortunately, we don't usually see the world the way it really is. Our brains create stories (rooted in those categories, templates, and heuristics I described in the last chapter) about everything we perceive, based on our experiences, desires, and expectations. Along the way, when information seems to be missing or contradictory, the brain fills in gaps or makes choices about what information to use or discard. (Surprise, surprise, it really likes information that proves the story right, a problem called confirmation bias.) An example that neuroscientists point to all the time is the divergent stories different people will tell after witnessing the same event. They'll swear that what they saw was the truth, even though it often isn't, or at least not the whole truth. Optical illusions are the visual manifestation of the brain filling in the gaps. The brain interprets the information it receives in a certain way, and we can't unsee it, even though we know it's not the truth or reality.

Basically, it's easy to be a little delusional. Long before neuroscientists could begin to describe how we process information and create meaning from it, great philosophers and thinkers knew it was a challenge. In the early twentieth century, the influential lawyer Clarence Darrow said, "Man does not live by truth, but by the illusions that his brain conceives."

So, what's an active learner to do? Well, here's what else Darrow said: "Chase after the truth like all hell and you'll free yourself, even though you never touch its coat tails." 

I'm a little more optimistic. I think we can get close to the truth in many situations. It starts by inviting more truth-tellers into your life who will keep orienting you to reality. But you can't make your perception of reality somebody else's responsibility (or base your judgments on their judgments). If you want to see the world the way it really is, you've got to hunt for the truth. You've got to chase it like all hell.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from "How Leaders Learn: Master the Habits of the World's Most Successful People" by David Novak with Lari Bishop. Copyright 2024 David C Novak. All rights reserved.

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