Leadership Sage, Ken Blanchard
On a crisp and sunny afternoon at his cabin on Skaneateles Lake in upstate New York, internationally-renown business leadership expert, Ken Blanchard, surprises me by taking frequent and sudden breaks in the midst of the interview we’ve just begun.
He affectionately acknowledges his grandkids who randomly pop their heads into the room, patiently calms a barking dog, and fully excuses himself to greet the mail lady who delivers him packages every day by boat.
To judge him in this moment, unmistakably relaxed and easy-going, the 73 year-old author, thought leader, and management sage appears to be knee deep in retirement.
And Blanchard certainly has earned some R & R. He’s written 55 books – selling a remarkable 20 million copies – and for the past three decades, has been the spiritual head of an eponymous training and consulting firm that serves clients in over 30 countries around the globe. Along the way, he co-created Situational Leadership® theory and co-authored The One-Minute Manager – a modern day classic that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
But winding down his career is the last thing on his mind. Inspired by his friends, Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking author who worked well into his nineties, and motivational legend, Zig Ziglar, who told him directly to “re-fire, not retire,” Blanchard has no interest in calling it quits. Instead, he’s on a two-month sabbatical for the explicit purpose of gearing up for the next chapter of his life.
Clearly vibrant in both heart and mind, Blanchard remains passionate about making a difference in the world – most especially in business. Tied to his conviction that there remains a “desperate need for positive leadership role modeling” today, he’s eager to write more, speak more, and essentially live the brand of management and stewardship he’s grown to believe is requisite for the 21st Century workplace.
Downplaying an already luminous resume, Blanchard intentionally skirts away from questions related to his personal legacy. Emphatically life affirming, he’s hired a nutritionist, a physical trainer – and has lost 35 pounds – all to ensure his body holds up as long as his spirit does. After five decades of dedicated study, he’s now absolutely certain he’s acquired the wisdom about how to most successfully manage and inspire people in their jobs; and he appears unwilling to leave the planet until he’s shared it with all of us.
Character Building At An Early Age
Blanchard grew up in Westchester County, New York with parents who instinctively seemed to know they were grooming a future philosopher and teacher.
His mother, daughter of German emigrants and the only one of five children to earn a high school diploma, met her future husband – a Naval Academy and Harvard Business School graduate – on a commuter train heading into New York City. According to Blanchard, their wide difference in educational backgrounds mattered little to his father. “He’d never met anyone with such incredible energy and positive views on life,” and immediately was swept away.
Radiant positivity is characteristic of Blanchard’s own personality, apparently imbued in his DNA. And his mother’s lessons on the importance of being a generous person would establish the foundation for his life’s philosophy. “She taught me to give and be charitable with people insisting I never expect anything in return. But she also told me to never be surprised by all the good that inevitably would come my way.”
Blanchard’s father graduated from Annapolis right after World War I. With a reduced need for officers, the Navy released him to pursue an MBA and begin a career on Wall Street. But when the prospects of a second world war later became imminent, he eagerly re-upped.
When Blanchard was just seven-years-old, his dad took him to the old Polo Grounds to see his first major league baseball game. The St. Louis Cardinals were playing the hometown New York Giants, and the trip to the stadium was motivated by much more than introducing his young boy to the national pastime. “There are two guys on the Cardinals who have values I think it would be good you looked at,” he told his son.
Vividly and nostalgically recalling the experience, Blanchard said one of the players was Enos Slaughter, who “ran to first on every hit as if his life depended on it. After we saw Slaughter play, Dad told me ‘if you’re going to do anything in life, hustle.’” The other player was Stan Musial, a 24-time All-Star considered one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. “That Musial could hit well wasn’t really the point. Musial was a perfect gentleman and my father was always focused on teaching me values.”
Synchronicity And The Evolution Of His Career
Blanchard’s greatest accomplishments seem to almost always be tied to chance meetings or other serendipitous events – and to his seizing these moments.
After graduating from Cornell with an undergraduate degree in Government and Philosophy, he applied to the best graduate schools in the country and was accepted at none of them. A self-confessed average student, he struggled to matriculate anywhere until Colgate University admitted him provisionally.
With plans of becoming a college administrator, Blanchard enrolled in the school’s education program, a curriculum he quickly found both tedious and boring.
While having a beer at the Colgate Inn one afternoon, he struck up a conversation with a bar mate, someone who happened to be a new Sociology professor just joining the faculty. Revealing a sober distress, Blanchard told his new friend how unhappy he was with his course work and how dispassionate he’d become about pursuing it. Who knows what motivated the professor, but he not only persuaded his drinking companion to instantly change his major to Sociology – where Blanchard would first study Leadership – he personally ensured the transfer.