A CEO challenge to elected officials: Re-think and hone your leadership skills

  • A growing lack of civility between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives has convinced us that folks with opposing philosophies can't possibly work together to solve our nation's problems.
  • Working toward a common goal doesn't require common beliefs, but it does demand open minds.
  • There are leaders out there who can help renew our optimism. We should all do our part to help him or her succeed.
A view of Capitol Hill while voters across the United States participate in midterm elections November 6, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images
A view of Capitol Hill while voters across the United States participate in midterm elections November 6, 2018 in Washington, DC.

On Jan. 3, at least 109 newly elected members of Congress will assume office in Washington. While their beliefs, backgrounds and sympathies may differ, they will all arrive with one thing in common: a sincere desire to solve big problems and help make our country better.

That this statement has inevitably caused some of you to roll your eyes is evidence of just how polarized and dysfunctional our political system has become. The growing lack of civility between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives has convinced us that folks with opposing philosophies can't possibly work together to solve our nation's problems. As a result, far too many of us — elected officials included — have fallen prey to a nasty case of confirmation bias: We embrace information that validates our existing belief system and ignore that which challenges or seeks to expand it.

If ever there was a time for true leadership, now is that time.

As the co-founder and former chief executive of YUM! Brands, I have seen the best of what leadership can accomplish. And in the wake of George H.W. Bush's death, I am reminded of the power of "honest compromise and shared progress," as his former rival Bill Clinton wrote about his beloved friend. With engaged, inspiring leaders, warring factions can find common ground and stubborn problems can find solutions. But when leaders tear each other down, don't invite input and — most dangerously — doubt the sincerity of their coworkers, problems worsen and enterprises fail.

Open minds

In my experience, working toward a common goal doesn't require common beliefs. But it does demand open minds. Leaders accomplish nothing when they work in opposition to their own people. For elected officials, this means forgetting whose vote they did or didn't win, identifying common goals, soliciting ideas from everyone and walking a path toward practical solutions.

I've seen amazing things happen when people with a common purpose are inspired to set aside their differences. When I became president of KFC in 1994, the business was in decline and franchisees, who owned 70 percent of the restaurants, were in open revolt against the company. Still, it was clear that everyone sincerely wanted the business to succeed.

By the time I left the job, in 1997, sales jumped and profits had more than doubled. A financial analyst will tell you that product innovations — new menu items that spurred $125,000 in incremental sales per store — drove that turnaround. But it was only after we settled our differences with the franchisees that we were able to work together and produce those innovations. The revival of KFC was a financial win, but it was a testament to what can happen in a short period of time when common goals meet mutual trust.

Of course, the problems our country faces are far greater than anything a fast food restaurant might contend with. But we can agree on what those challenges are. Health care, immigration and the national debt are critical issues that require solutions now instead of continually kicking the can down the road. Without inspired, passionate leadership, any hope of finding those solutions is dim.

Like many Americans these days, I am saddened by the state of our politics. But I have seen time and time again in business the power of skillful leadership to turn even the worst situations around. And I want to do my part to help.

Teaching leadership

For the past 20 years, I have made it my mission to create better leaders in all factions of life. In 2012, I formed the Lead2Feed Student Leadership Program, which helps middle- and high-school students learn leadership skills while working to meet a community need. In 2017, I helped launch the Novak Leadership Institute at the University of Missouri, which offers a new approach to leadership education rooted in the principles of empathy and strategic communication.

At oGoLead, the leadership training company I co-founded in 2017, we give aspiring leaders the opportunity to step back, reflect on their leadership and develop a plan to drive transformational change. Our leadership principles have helped thousands of people from all levels and all walks of life gain a new perspective on their own leadership approach by tearing down confirmation bias, bolstering their productive conflict skills and demonstrating a powerful positive mindset to solve stubborn problems.

As Albert Einstein once noted, we cannot solve our problems using the same thinking that created them. That's why we are making oGoLead's Essential Leadership Traits digital training program available for free to all elected officials in the U.S. at the federal, state and local level. I know in my heart that this course can help all leaders, no matter how much experience they have, become more self-aware and effect positive change. If this offer helps even one of our leaders do that, the effort will have been worthwhile.

Like you, I love this country and know we are capable of so much more. Like you, I am dismayed by the state of our political dialogue. But I am not fatalistic, and I am not ready to give up. There's no doubt in my mind that all our elected officials want our country to succeed.

Time and again, this country has come face to face with despair, until a leader emerged, from either side of the aisle, to help renew our optimism. Personally, I believe there are leaders out there, and we should all do our part to help him or her succeed.

Elected officials can access their free Essential Leadership Traits digital program at ogolead.com. Elected Officials click here.

David Novak is the co-founder and retired chairman of Yum! Brands and the co-founder and CEO of oGoLead, a digital leadership platform.