Ken Blanchard: A Premier Leadership Mind Turns To The Heart

Leadership Sage, Ken Blanchard

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.

After receiving his Masters degree, Blanchard returned to Cornell and earned a PhD in Education and Leadership.  His first career assignment came at Ohio University where he was named Assistant to the Dean.

Blanchard’s reasoning for seeking an administrative position had been driven entirely by feedback he’d repeatedly received from his professors.  Almost all had told him he was a lousy writer.  Fully aware that there existed a “publish or perish” ethos in most universities, Blanchard deliberately steered away from teaching, specifically to avoid ever having to write.   But these best laid plans seemed to backfire when his boss came and asked him to teach a class.

Fearing his career had just been placed on the road to ruin, Blanchard felt unnerved when setting foot in the classroom for the first time.  But after just a few days, he realized he actually loved being a teacher – and had found his calling.  Rejecting his fears of writing, he returned home to tell his wife, Margie, “This is what I want to do with my life.”

Now saddled with managing all his original administrative duties, in addition to teaching his new class, Blanchard sought permission from Paul Hersey, Ohio University’s world-class leadership expert, to audit his bread and butter undergraduate course.  Blanchard fully expected Hersey would be sensitive to his workload and permit him to sit in on his highly regarded lectures.  Instead, the professor summarily rejected the idea telling Blanchard, “No one audits my course.  You can enroll only as long as you’re willing to write the papers and do all the work like everyone else.”

The devil on Blanchard’s shoulder insisted that taking the class under these conditions was beneath the dignity of an Assistant Dean who already had earned his PhD.  But the wise counsel of Margie, who strongly suggested her husband put his ego aside, influenced him to register.

When the semester was over, Hersey stopped by Blanchard’s office and closed the door.   He looked at his hybrid student-peer and said, “Ken, I’ve been teaching leadership classes for over a decade and I think I’m better than just about anyone.  But I just can’t write.  I’m a nervous wreck because I’ve been asked to write a textbook.”  Hersey told Blanchard that he couldn’t produce the book alone and was looking for a good writer to help him.   Having read all the papers Blanchard had submitted for his class, the professor then blurted out, “Would you write the book with me, Ken?”

While initially shocked, Blanchard wasted no time agreeing to the partnership telling Hersey, “Let’s do it!  We’ll make a great team.  You can’t write; and I’m not supposed to.”

The end product of this collaboration was a book called Management of Organization Behavior, a text that sells more today than when it was originally published four decades ago.  Its tenth edition will be released this fall.

The cornerstone of the work is the idea that effective leadership varies, and that there is no one ‘best’ way to manage people.  The groundbreaking model, now widely known as Situational Leadership® II, is anchored to Blanchard’s assertion that the most successful workplace leaders are those who match their leadership styles to the skill and development level of each employee – for every task or job they are assigned.   Today, Situational Leadership® II remains a staple offering of Blanchard’s training organization and long ago became a foundational management discipline in organizations all over the world.

Co-Creating A Phenomenon: The One-Minute Manager
While on sabbatical in San Diego a few years later, Blanchard attended a cocktail party where every invitee was a published author.  Earning him inclusion in the elite affair was the one textbook he’d written at Ohio University.

During the event, Margie struck up a conversation with the writer of a highly successful children’s series called, Value Tales.  A physician by training, the author recently had switched genres and completed another manuscript for a book he was calling The One Minute Parent.  Immediately impressed by her new acquaintance, Margie tracked down her husband and literally dragged him by the arm to meet Spencer Johnson.

As Margie, a Cornell PhD herself, had anticipated, the two men made an instant connection.  While it soon became evident that they differed in certain methodologies, their beliefs and philosophies on managing people were almost identical.  Very soon after that first meeting, they agreed to team up in writing a book; it was Blanchard who specifically suggested they adapt Johnson’s “One-Minute” approach to workplace management.

As the foundation for what they were about to create, Johnson presciently recognized that the old paradigm of “big business books with a lot of charts no longer matched up to most business people’s needs.”  Noting that people already were “very, very busy doing their jobs,” he drew upon the wisdom of 18th Century author, Charles Caleb Colton, who advised writers of that era “to give readers the most information – and take from them the least time.”

Consequently, what Blanchard and Johnson set out to accomplish was to write a short, readable, and very practical book that would convey the most indispensable and impactful of all management practices – the significant few.  According to Johnson, the toughest part of the project was ensuring the book was brief (it’s barely 100 pages) while still containing highly useful content.

When writing his Value Tales books, Johnson began the practice of giving his early drafts to teachers to read to their classes.  Tied to the children’s reactions, he re-worked the stories over and over until he was absolutely certain kids everywhere would love them.  In creating The One-Minute Manager, the authors utilized the identical process.  Once Blanchard put his “managerial touch” on the manuscript, it was distributed to several reviewers for feedback.  Blanchard said this was one of the great things Johnson taught him.  “We kept producing drafts until we knew people would pay $15 for a photocopy of the book.”

Leveraging both authors’ gifts for storytelling, The One-Minute Manager lays out three essential practices proven to have the greatest influence on maximizing employee engagement, effectiveness and achievement.  These include: setting and communicating clear goals and expectations; acknowledging good work and effort whenever a manager observes it; and thoughtfully re-directing people when their work is off target.

Very early on in their work, Blanchard and Johnson were guests on a radio talk-show program discussing ways for businesses to improve workplace productivity.  Despite their best intentions, nothing in their remarks prompted listeners to call in with questions. The studio had 16 open lines and not one of them was ringing.

Seconds into their first commercial break, the host looked at his guests and said, “Gentleman, we’re really dying here.  If it’s alright with you, I’m going to take my own shot at this.”  And, just as soon as they returned to the air, he said to his audience, “Tell me people, when was the last time you were caught doing something right?”  According to Johnson, who still marvels at the experience, “within a short time, all 16 lines were lit up.  Ken and I looked at each other and said, ‘I think we just found a hot button.’”

That people were not being consistently recognized for their efforts and achievements at work became a very important insight needing a remedy.  Thirty years later, both authors believe that the single most powerful idea of the book was “catch people doing something right.”

Long before the practice became more common, Blanchard and Johnson elected to self-publish The One-Minute Manager – principally because they doubted any traditional publishers would take the book seriously.  According to Johnson, “A small business book that included aphorisms, and was written as a parable, just had never been done before.”  But clients to whom Blanchard now was consulting immediately purchased 25,000 copies.  From there, the book was re-published traditionally and sales soared.  To date, over 13 million copies of The One-Minute Manager have been sold, and it’s been translated into 37 languages.  While both Blanchard and Johnson once considered producing a modernized 30th year re-issue, the ongoing demand for the book convinced them the content as originally written has stood the test of time.

Getting The Heart Right
When Blanchard and Johnson completed the manuscript for the One-Minute Manager, they both believed the idea of “catching someone doing something right” was profound knowledge.

Their key insight was that expressions of appreciation and acknowledgment have an extremely powerful effect on human performance; when people are made to know their work is valued, they will do more of it – and do it well.

Over the next 15 years, Blanchard wrote many more books, almost always reinforcing this fundamental and essential idea along the way.  With everything he published, his intention was to have a significant influence on shaping workplace leadership and, more specifically, on helping managers become increasingly more effective at motivating employee achievement.

Nearly a decade ago, Blanchard was having a conversation with Bill Hybels, leadership author and head of one of the nation’s largest churches, when the extent of his true impact to date came into question.

“Can I ask you Ken, what’s been your biggest disappointment in your work?”  Hybels’ question pierced Blanchard, but he immediately had the answer:

“That more people don’t use it.”

Blanchard told Hybels, “People tell me all the time that they love my books.  But when I go into organizations and chat with employees, I ask them, ‘How do you know when you are doing a good job?’  And the answer I most consistently hear is ‘Nobody’s hit me yet.  No news is good news.’  So my conclusion was that managers weren’t catching people doing things right, and that organizations and employees both were suffering because of it.”

Hybels’ question proved fortuitous even if it initially elicited Blanchard’s disappointment.   His analysis and subsequent guidance helped Blanchard to reframe his understanding of leadership, and to see the importance of certain qualities he’d never fully given consideration to before.

“I think you made the same mistake I made,” Hybels said, “which is you’ve been trying to change people from the outside.  You’ve been trying to teach the golden rule.”  Hybels’ point was that you can’t teach people to be honest, caring or supportive to the people they manage.  For a person to succeed in leadership, these traits must be authentic.  “People have to have it in their hearts.”

Listening to Hybels, Blanchard intuited that there’s nothing he can put into a leader’s head that will make much difference if the desire to be an advocate – and even nurturing  – to others isn’t there.  “If it’s not in your heart to care for and value the people you manage,” Blanchard now believes, “it’s pretty hard to get anything else right.   It’s virtually impossible for them to genuinely act on the practices we know lead to great human performance.”

Blanchard’s epiphany was that an organization’s first charge is to ensure they’re putting the right people into leadership roles, and as a departure from longstanding management theory, they had to be capable of leading with both mind and heart.

On The Cutting Edge – And Not Alone
The idea of leading with any degree of heart long has been met with suspicion and even derision in business.  Widely seen as soft, sentimental, and intrinsically undermining to workplace productivity, the common belief is that the heart acts like kryptonite and weakens a manager’s effectiveness.  But Blanchard is not alone in asserting this is entirely archaic thinking that’s harming business achievement and profitability.

“Business hasn’t yet discovered the power of the heart,“ says Spencer Johnson.  “But more and more people are becoming aware, and they’re addressing the deeper level of leadership.  They’re looking beyond the superficial to discover what really drives people.  What motivates them?  What inspires them to do better?   Very often, these concern feelings not just thinking.”

Johnson points to the work of Harvard Business School professor, John Kotter, whose landmark book, Leading Change, proved that organizations attempting major cultural change only succeeded when leaders focused on helping employees feel differently – not just think differently.   In the most successful examples of change he ever observed, Kotter says, the companies “devoted 60% of their efforts to influencing hearts and only 40% to intellects.”

Simply because most leaders never have been taught to concern themselves with how people are affected by change – and how employee feelings influence adoption or resistance to new methods – only 5% of the firms Kotter studied fully succeeded and achieved all their original aspirations.   And as an inherent rebuke to traditional management theory, which insists having a job and a paycheck is fully sufficient motivation for people to perform, Kotter found that 70% of the organizations failed to implement any meaningful change.

Along with the One-Minute Manager and Johnson’s later book, Who Moved My Cheese, Kotter’s Leading Change has been named one of Time Magazine’s “25 Most Influential Business Books of All-Time.”  This recognition, at least in part, is due to the author’s paradigm-breaking leadership advice: “The more you focus on hearts and minds, the better it will work out.”

Practicing All He Teaches
John Kotter believes the curriculums at most MBA programs – including at Harvard – almost exclusively are focused on the rational aspects of management, and widely ignore teaching future leaders how to influence and even inspire human performance in the workplace.  After making that same observation, Ken Blanchard took action to change it.

For the past several years, Blanchard has invested significant time and resources to help endow graduate and undergraduate leadership programs at both the University of San Diego and Arizona’s Grand Canyon University (where the School of Business bears his name).

“We discovered most schools weren’t teaching anything about leadership,” said Blanchard, “and all any of them were trying to do was impact student thinking.  They didn’t do anything about the heart. “

At both USD and Grand Canyon, business students are required to take rigorous and traditional management course-work including financial analysis, organizational behavior, calculus, statistics and accounting.  While Blanchard believes all these classes remain essential, the gap he sees is that none of them prepares future leaders to be effective stewards of human resources.  What’s inherently missing are the experiences that will help students become more fully secure in themselves and thereby more influential leaders.

“So, in our programs, we take them through a transformational journey,” says Blanchard.  “We start with the self because I think one of the biggest reasons many leaders aren’t very good is they don’t know who they are.  That, again, is the heart issue.”

To initiate the students’ self-discovery, Blanchard pushes them to develop a personal mission statement and write their own obituary.  To ensure they feel the full impact of what they’ve produced, they’re asked to read their work to everyone else in class.  “Then, we have an entire course on leadership point-of-view, which requires students to look back on who and what life events shaped their beliefs about leading and motivating people.”

Over a period of many months, students are given numerous diagnostics tools like Myers Briggs and DISC – all intended to provide them with greater insight into their values, personal disposition, and whether, deep-down, they have a true predilection for leading people.

Blanchard also is convinced that “ego” is the biggest obstacle that gets in the way of people, and prevents them from becoming effective leaders.  To bring home the point, he conducts an “Ego Anonymous” meeting where students must stand up and publicly admit to some ego-driven – and thereby limiting – behavior.

After hearing the confessions of their peers, and by expressing some of their own, it invariably becomes clear to students that there are two traits that predominantly take leaders out of their hearts.  The first is “false pride,” characteristic of someone who thinks more of themselves than they should and is self-promoting.  The second is “self-doubt” or fear, where they think less of themselves than they should and are motivated by self-protection.

The kernel of truth Blanchard most wants to impart to students is that leaders cannot and will not succeed when their primary inclination is to be self-focused.   “So I ask each of them directly, ‘Are you here to serve, or be served?’”

The night before graduation, both schools host a dinner for students and their families.  Never missing these, Blanchard routinely asks all the future leaders, “What has this class meant to you?”  Invariably, half of the students end up crying.

“The President of USD attended one dinner and asked me, “’what kind of class are you running?’  She’d never seen students get so emotional about what an impact one program had on who they are.”

Blanchard knows his training is “not typical business school type stuff” and that’s just the point.  “We spend way too much time teaching leadership theory without placing emphasis on what’s really going to work.   What I’ve learned is that great leadership is tied to service.  If you aren’t there to serve, how will you ever be someone who will develop people, maximize their human potential and take steps to ensure they know their work is valued?   These are the things that drive the greatest performance for organizations and all come out of a leader’s heart.”

Fire, Monopoly And Reaffirming Values
In 2007, Blanchard was out of town when word came that his family’s home of 25 years had burned to the ground.

Because both he and Margie were thousands of miles away, they were unable to preserve any of their most valuable, or even most sentimental, possessions.   Everything was gone and they were devastated.  Reflecting on his profound loss, Blanchard found it curious that a story he’d read just a few days before the blaze would prove so invaluable in helping him to heal.

As told by author, John Ortberg, a young boy’s grandmother comes for a visit and suggests the pair play a game of Monopoly.  Entirely inexperienced, the kid watches helplessly as his once favorite Nana mercilessly wipes him out.  Feeling aggrieved and humiliated, he privately vows his revenge.

For weeks leading up to his relative’s next visit, the boy plays Monopoly with a friend almost non-stop. Growing increasingly more skilled and knowledgeable, he eagerly awaits the re-match.  And things are very different the second time around.   The youngster goes on a property-buying spree, relishes every time his opponent lands on one of his hotels, and proceeds to bleed grandma of all her cash.  In declaring victory, he stands up and exclaims, “This is the greatest day of my life!”

Not at all impressed, the grandmother orders the boy to sit back down.  “Now that you know how to play the game,” she tells him, “let me teach you a lesson about life.   Never forget that, at the end of the game, all the pieces go back in the box. All you bought, all you accumulated – it all goes back.

Reaffirming that all the “stuff” any of us ever acquire inherently is transitory in nature, Blanchard quickly got over his loss, and re-focused on what’s most important to him in his life – teaching.  “There’s a desperate need for positive leadership modeling, and I’ve got to get out there!”

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By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.