How Servant Leadership Can Make You A Better Leader

Photo courtesy of Ken Blanchard

[The following is the full raw transcript for a LEADx Podcast interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Kevin Kruse: Now on today's show, I'm literally speaking to a leadership legend. One of the top leadership thinkers and influencers in history. Now I had the chance to have a long lunch with him a couple years ago and was just blown away by his knowledge and his desire to make a positive impact on others. It's really sort of a life highlight kind of moment or meal, back then. It was great to reconnect with him here and to talk to him about his brand new book.

But first, if you're the kind of person who always says, “Thank you,” I hope you'll thank the LEADx team, by taking one minute to leave a rating on iTunes or wherever you are listening to this podcast. It's the single best favor you can do for me. It's the best thing you can do to grow the LEADx family. And make sure to visit for the free training course of the day. You don't even need to sign-up with an email. Just go there and it plays, and while you're there, check out the LEADx Academy, over 50 courses that are going to help you to stand out and get ahead at work.

Now our quote of the day is from Gandhi. “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” which brings me to the intro for today's guest. He is the Co-Author of the groundbreaking best-seller, The One Minute Manager. And all of his books combined have had sales of more than 21,000,000 copies. They've been translated into 42 languages. His 65th and latest book, Servant Leadership In Action: How Can you Achieve Great Relationships and Results, is a collection of essays from 44 of today's topic servant leadership authorities and practitioners. He is also the Co-Founder and Chief Spiritual Officer of The Ken Blanchard Companies, which he started in 1979.

Our guest, of course, is the legendary Dr. Ken Blanchard. Ken, welcome to the show.

Ken Blanchard: Well, Kevin, it's great to be with you.

Kruse: A lot of my listeners, Ken, are younger managers, and you've contributed so much to the field of management leadership, but I'm wondering. What would be a first piece of advice you would give to a new, or a first-time manager?

Blanchard: Well, my biggest advice, Kevin, is that they should listen more than talk. I think a lot of times, what happens with young managers, is they want to make an entry to say, “Man, I really got it together.” Well, the people know you don't have it together. And if you came to them and said, “Gee, I feel honored to be in this leadership position, but I'm not going to be anything, be able to do anything without you. And I want us really to be a team. So I'm here to listen as much as I am to speak, and I just want to set that kind of tone.”

I remember my son was running the kitchen at a big hotel in San Diego, and he was in his early 20s, and he was with all these people from different races and creeds, and all older, and he went in and did that. And they loved him. They said, “Man, we knew you didn't know anything. Now let us see what we can do to help you.”

Kruse: If you don't try to fake it, you'll save a lot of time.

Blanchard: Absolutely.

Kruse: So, Ken, your new book is Servant Leadership In Action: How Can you Achieve Great Relationships and Results. And I just want to start because I think many people have misconceptions about what servant leadership is, they just think it's the boss taking orders from everybody. Or, there's a little bit of this movement around Holacracy, it's self-managing teams. But that's not what self-leadership is about, right?

Blanchard: No, I know when I … You're right, Kevin. When I talk to groups about that, initially they think it's about the inmates running the prison, who are trying to please everybody, or something. But they don't understand that there's two aspects of servant leadership. The leadership aspect is about vision, and direction, and goals. Because leadership is about going somewhere. And that's the responsibility of the hierarchy.

If people aren't clear on what business you're in, what you're trying to accomplish, and your values, and your goals, shame on you. It doesn't mean you shouldn't involve them. It's just your responsibility to make sure that that's clear. And that's the leadership part of servant leadership. And then, once that's done, now you move to the servant part of servant leadership. And philosophically, Kevin, now you’ve got to turn that pyramid upside down, so now you work for your people, who eventually work for your customers.

When people understand that, they really get it. That, “Okay, now once the vision, and direction, and goals are clear, the job of the leader is to help people live according to the vision of values and goals, and be successful.” Now you're working for them. You're the head cheerleader and all, and so often in organizations, you get self-serving leaders, who during implementation, which is the second part, the servant part.

They led that hierarchy to be alive and well, so everybody's sucking up the hierarchy, and now as a customer, if you're dealing with somebody with a problem, you're talking to a duck. And they're going, “Quack, quack, quack. It's our policy. Quack, quack. I didn't make the rules. Quack, quack. Do you want to talk to my supervisor? Quack, quack, quack, quack, quack.”

We call the supervisory a duck, the Head Mallard. They just quack at a higher level. Where if you have a really servant leadership organization, when you're talking to a front line person, you're talking to an eagle because they're allowed to bring their brains to work. I wrote a book with Colleen Barrett, when she was President of Southwest Airlines, after Herb stepped down. And people are able to make decisions. They are to bring their brains to work, and all, and I think that's one of the exciting things when you see a servant leadership-grown organization.

Kruse: I love that, and that explanation really enlightened me and set me up for understanding the other articles in the book, as well. One thing I'm curious about. I've been thinking about this for a long time. It's this idea of tying compensation to employee survey results. It's actually chapter four in the book from former Popeye CEO, Cheryl Bachelder. So she talked about, back then, she had about 25% of a manager's bonus was tied to their servant leadership survey.

And I know Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell's Soup, he tied part of everyone's bonus, or manager's bonus back to their employee engagement survey. What are your thoughts on this, of tying a part of your variable pay, your bonus, to your followers perceptions of your leadership abilities?

Blanchard: Well, I think that's really important, Kevin, because I've said for a long time, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” That if you really want to find out how somebody's doing, you got to get feedback, and you got to give it to them, and you got to receive it and all, and so a survey might be a real way to get some feedback.

And with Cheryl, she had created a servant leadership environment, so people weren't just trying to suck the hierarchy, and give their manager good scores, so they had good relationships. And so surveys are good, but I think you also need to manage by wandering around and interviewing, see how people are doing because, to me, for every leader, the number one customer has got to be their people.

Kruse: Right.

Blanchard: If they take care of their people, if they empower their people, their people will then take care of their number two most important customer, the people who use their products and services. And remember, an organization, everybody has a customer. And some people have external customers that they deal with. The salespeople and all. Some people have mainly internal customers, like the HRD department.

Kruse: Right.

Blanchard: And some people have customers from both aspects of the thing. But what are you doing in relation to that? But it all depends on how you're being perceived by your people. I think getting that kind of feedback is really helpful, and I think compensation should be, do that, and if you do a great job with your people, they'll take care of your customers. That'll get the goals accomplished and the organization will be profitable and productive.

Kruse: Love that. And in this sort of crazy, busy world we're in. Especially larger companies, public companies, where everything's measured in 90 day quarters, and short-term thinking, and we're all double-booked with our meetings. How would you recommend that managers sort of remember or pause to realize, “I can't just be a manager of tasks. I need to be a leader of people.” How can we put this into our daily and weekly work?

Blanchard: Well, Kevin, one of the great co-author experiences I had a number of years ago was writing a book with Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote the Power of Positive thinking. Amazing guy. He was 86 years old when I met him, and one of the things that we said, we wrote a book called The Power of Ethical Management: Integrity Pays, You Don't Have to Cheat to Win. As we said, that we all have two selves. We have an external task-oriented self that's used to getting jobs done. Then we have a thoughtful, reflective self.

Now, which of those two selves wakes up quicker in the morning? Of course, what the alarm goes off, you jump out of bed, and you're into your task-oriented self and all. John, a good pastor friend of mine. He said, “We ought to call the clock the opportunity clock, where it's going to be a great day. ” Then you're trying to eat while you're washing, and you're running around. From in the car, you're on the phone, then you're in a meeting, and you're running.

And people are so into their task-oriented self, that they really don't have time to reflect on who they want to be in the world, and how they want to be that day. So one of the things that I've really talked about is that, if you want to be an effective servant leader, you have to enter your day slowly. And by saying that, I'm not talking about hours. But taking at least 10 minutes. I like to sit on the side of the bed and think about, “Okay, what do I have on my calendar for today? How do I want to be today? What do I want to do and all?” That's really very, very helpful and all in setting a day.

And then I've never been much of a journal writer because people write for colors, and poetry, and all, but Bill, who is a buddy of mine, who has a big church in the Chicago area, was working with the Chicago Bears when Singletary was there. He would watch the films after Bible study, and they always first looked at, “What do they do well and want to keep doing from the game before?” And then, “What do we want to do differently.” He said, “Ken, that's what a journal ought to be.” And boy, it's been such a powerful thing, so at the end of the day, I have a journal that I writing praising, which is back to the One Minute Manager.

Kruse: Right.

Blanchard: “What did I do today that's consistent with who I want to be in the world?” And then redirections, “What would I like to have an instant replay because I would like to have done that differently?” They say, “An unexamined life isn't worth living.” So if you kind of do that every day, you got to kind of track, “Where am I doing well and all that?”

So I think you have to be intentional about being a servant leader and taking care of your people, and not just boom, racing around into the craziness of day. Just take that 10 minutes or more in the morning and say, “Hey, how do I want to be today? What do I have to do?” And then kind of reflect on that at night.

Kruse: I like this idea of using the journal as game film. It's the way that professional athletes do, looking back and taking lessons from the day. So a final question, Ken. I've been doing a lot of reflection and some work in the area of leaders as coaches. In fact, I often say, “I almost wish we would ban that word manager, and just replace it with coach.” Instead of being a sales manager, you're a sales coach. Or, something like that. Do you have any tips for managers out there who want to lead with a coaching style, who want to coach their team members to higher levels of performance?

Blanchard: Well, Kevin, first of all. If you're going to really help people win, which I think is your job as a manager, there are three parts to that. There's performance planning. That's when, at the beginning of a period of time, you set goals and objectives. That was the first secret of The One Minute Manager. One minute goal setting. All good performers start with clear goals. Then the second part is day-to-day coaching, which is, “Okay, now that you're clear on the goals, how do I help you accomplish the goals?”

And then for the final, is performance evaluation, where you sit down and evaluate somebody's performance over time. When I go around the world, Kevin, and ask people, “Of those three things, where do you spend most of the time?” Almost universally they say, “Evaluation,” because they're filling out all these stupid forms on their people and all, which I think is really crazy. My feeling is that everybody in an organization ought to fill out only one evaluation form. That's on themselves, and the job of the manager is either agree or disagree.

And that the biggest part of the whole coaching is that part where, after goals are clear, what are you doing? You should be gathering data, wandering around, finding, praising progress, and cheering people on. If their performance isn't particularly up to snuff, then in the new One Minute Manager, we call it One Minute Redirects, rather than One Minute Reprimand. You say, “Gee, it appears that the performance isn't going in the direction. What can I do to help you get back on track, and all that kind of thing?” And that's where the bulk of the time ought to be spent. Not on the evaluation, and filling out forms, and all that kind of thing. So it's really exciting.

I wrote a book with Garry Ridge from WD-40, and he got really excited about this whole concept because, Kevin, you'll get a kick out of it. When I was a college professor for 10 years, I was always in trouble, investigated by some of the best faculty committees, but the problem is that the first day of class, I gave out the final examination. They would say, “What are you doing?” I'd say, “I'm confused.” They'd say, “That's not what we're supposed to teach these kids. You are, but don't give them the questions in the final.”

I'd say, “Now do I got to give them the questions on the final, what do you think I'm going to do all semester? I'm going to teach them the answers, so when they get to the final exam, they get, “Hey, life is about getting As, not some stupid normal distribution curve.” And I go into organizations, and I'll say, “How many of you every year go out and hire some new losers? I mean, you lost some of your low people last year. Are we ready to get some new losers to fill the low slots?” No, you either go out and steal winners from other companies, or you have potential winners. And why are you even thinking about a normal distribution curve?

So Gary started this whole thing at WD-40 that's changed the whole environment, called Don't Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A. He's holding managers responsible for getting their people A averages, which is accomplishing the goals that they have set, and has quarterly meetings actually, where they can actually even change their goals all the way up to the beginning of the fourth quarter. Because a lot of times, people will file goals, and they leave them alone until somebody says, “You got your annual performance review?” Boom, they're running around trying to find the damn goals.

And so coaching is really so important because after goals are cleared, your job is to help people accomplish the goals and win, and you do that by praising progress, redirecting efforts, being there for people.

Kruse: I love that and what a story. That culture total opposite from forced ranking, and forcing the 10% out every year. So, Ken, tell us, what's the best way for our listeners to find out more about you, and of course, the new book?

Blanchard: Well, we have a website called, so they can go right on that, and they can get good information on this Servant Leadership in Action book. I'm just thrilled. John Maxwell wrote the foreword to the book and I said, “Who do you think we should get to endorse it?” And he said, “Ken, all of them are already in the book.” And so when you open the book, if you notice, the first three and a half pages introduce all the people, including Simon Sinek, and Brené Brown, and Frances Hesselbein, and Marshall Goldsmith, and just Laurie Beth Jones, and just all kinds of amazing people.

And so I'm really excited about this, so you can find out about this and all the other books that I've done. Or, you can go to Amazon, and they have it. And Barnes & Noble, and all that kind of thing. So nobody gets any royalties from this. We've created a foundation for Servant Leadership, so that we can have money to support Servant Leadership efforts, because the world is in desperate need, Kevin, as you know. A different form of leadership, we've seen what self-serving leaders have done in a negative way in every sector of society around the world. And so this is about a movement. It's not just about a book.

Kruse: I love that and I hope you and your co-authors continue to collaborate. It's come, I can't help but notice that in the music world, especially I think it's now universal, but it started in the hip-hop and the rap music. They would always collaborate. They would always, they have a lead artist featuring another artist. So, to me, this is a great … Like a great hip-hop album of some of the best thinkers collaborating, featuring each other on a single topic, and I think going to be your biggest book in a long time, and a great movement.

Blanchard: Yeah, and it's not only just people who write about and study this field, but there are practitioners like Garry Ridge from WD-40. James Blanchard was President for years at Synovus. They won the Best Company To Work For from Fortune so often, they asked to stop applying, and they started an all-star list, and then Cheryl Bachelder, how she turned around Popeye's.

And so it's not just people who write about it, it's that people have done it, and all. It's a wonderful article about Pat Summitt, the Tennessee Basketball Coach. By one of her great players, Tamika Catchings. It's called Pat Summitt's Steely Eyes, Servant Heart. Wonderful article, and so it's just great stuff.

Kruse: Great way to put it. Ken, thank you again for coming on the LEADx Leadership Show and best of luck.

Blanchard: Well, good. Thank you so much, Kevin. Take care of yourself.

Kruse: Thank you. All right. We are out, Ken. Thank you again for your time. I will push this far and wide. And once we are up on Forbes and released, we'll let your team know so you guys can check it out.

Blanchard: Well, great. Yeah, I really hope it's seen as a movement. It's not about Brené or myself, and that kind of thing.

Kruse: Yeah, I think it's so important. As you said, we need the message now more than ever. You wouldn't think so, like you'd think we would already be moving in this direction. But people will be hungry for it, so we'll all spread the word.

Blanchard: Yeah, I'm starting to work on another book, you'll get a kick out of, in relation to this. It's called Duh? Why Isn't Common Sense Common Practice?

Kruse: Oh, yeah.

Blanchard: Because here, you look at Southwest, you look at Synovus, you look at Disney, you look at Nordstrom's, you look at Wegmans. They all do this kind of thing and they're leaders in their field. Well, why aren't the rest of them doing it?

Kruse: Well, that's a good question. Do you have the short answer why?

Blanchard: Well, it's all ego.

Kruse: Oh.

Blanchard: We didn't get into that, but I think people want to be the heroes and all that kind of thing-

Kruse: Yeah, making it about them.

Blanchard: And I think Wall Street also pushes us to think that the reason to be in business is to make money. And I think that profit is the applause you take, make when you create a motivating environment for your people, so they take care of your customers.

Kruse: Well, I always say, “Life is about making an impact, not making an income.” But what I also tell my friends is, “The more impact you make, the more income you're going to have anyway.”

Blanchard: That's right.

Kruse: It just comes back.

Blanchard: It's like Bob Buford's Success Versus Significance.

Kruse: Right.

Blanchard: If you just focus on making money, and recognition, you're never going to be significant. But if you're like Mother Teresa, you focus on generosity, service, and loving relationships. All of the sudden, people are falling all over you, trying to give you money, recognition, and power. It goes back the other way.

Kruse: I learned that the hard way. I was 40 years old, just 10 years ago, and had some okay success with my companies, but it was hard work. Like I didn't feel good, it was stressful. When I totally shifted my mindset, it became easy and the success goes faster. It's just incredible.

Blanchard: Yes.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at