Leonardo’s Words of Wisdom

“People believe what they want to believe.”

Quite possibly one of the most profound statements delivered by Leonardo DiCaprio in the recently released film, The Wolf of Wall Street. And incidentally (in my humble opinion) probably Leo’s best performance to date.

This line from the movie really struck me.

It’s a powerful assertion. And if you want to look at it from a leadership perspective, a somewhat cautionary tale.

We believe what we want to believe.

We hear what we want to hear.

We see the world through our own tinted lens.

If you’re a leader, this statement applies to you – and to those people you lead.

In their book Decisive, authors Heath and Heath say once we have made a decision or formed a point of view, our brain automatically seeks confirmation of our perceived stance.

Coined confirmation bias, there’s no better example of this than contestants in reality TV talent shows – like Idol or X-Factor, for example.

Although many of the participants are just not blessed with songbird genes, they hold onto feedback from their friends and family. They believe what they want to believe.  

When the judges respond with critical feedback, they are torn to shreds. The dream is crushed. Their ‘beliefs’ are shattered. For the first time in their lives, they have received objective feedback, without attachment.

When we want something to be true, we will seek out the things which support it.

Then, when we draw conclusions from those spotlighted scenes, we’ll congratulate ourselves on a reasoned decision.


The problem is, in business this phenomenon happens every day.

Case in point. Just this morning, someone sent me a text of a picture which I completely misinterpreted, based on my (incorrect) assumption of our previous conversation. Luckily we have the sort of relationship where we could raise it and clear up misconceptions.  But I know that in other cases, it wouldn’t have played out so positively.

Believing what we want to believe is a common trap in leadership.  A tricky little customer.

So what to do?

1. Accept that this is going to happen.

2. Become more aware.  Be on the lookout for this little critter called confirmation bias.

Clues? Intensity of feeling or blind conviction is a cautionary red flag.  Particularly when intense emotions arise from a given situation. Ask yourself – is your ego out to play here?  Have you thought through alternate scenarios to your immediate reaction?

3. Play devil’s advocate to your own world view. This one is hard, because there is a sweet seduction to believing our own bias. But train yourself to at least consider an alternate reality or assumption.

Ask, what gems can I glean if I take the opposing view? There’s a possibility I am wrong. What would that mean?

4. Don’t try and do it alone. Check your assumptions if you suspect you are believing what you want to hear with someone you trust.

5. With others: especially when there is change afoot, take this phenomenon into consideration. What are you sensing your team don’t want to face? What they want to hear but which may not be the reality.  Help them to face reality, even if it’s not the sweetest tune.

Finally, see the movie The Wolf on Wall Street*.  It’s awesome.

*It is R18 for a reason, so buyer beware.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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