Ask Empowering Questions

Most of us—even millennials—have a history of working under guidance and control at school and in our workplaces. Therefore, we tend to think of authority as external rather than internal. The following questions are all too familiar to us:

At school: “What does the teacher want me to do to get good grades?”

At work: “What does my boss want me to do?”

While things are changing, we live and work in a culture predominated by top-down management and hierarchical thinking, so we’re far less likely to ask questions like these:

At school: “What do I want to learn from this class? How will I know I have learned something I can use?”

At work: “What do I need to do to help my company succeed?”

These are empowering questions. President Kennedy made a call for these kinds of questions when he challenged Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

Empowering questions open the possibility for us to become stronger and more competent. So why don’t we ask them more often?

It gets back to all those hard-earned parenting, teaching, and managing skills we learned from our hierarchical culture. Indeed, we feel it is our responsibility as parents, teachers, or managers to tell people what to do, how to do it, and why it needs to be done. We feel we’d be shirking our responsibilities to ask children, students, or direct reports empowering questions such as these:

“What do you think needs to be done, and why is it important?”

“What do you think your goals should be?”

“How do you think you should go about achieving your goals?”

Many of us are afraid to relinquish control to our direct reports because we’re concerned about outcomes. Yet organizations with a culture of empowerment almost always outperform their hierarchical competitors. Consider the following story from Ritz-Carlton, a company famous for its culture of empowerment.

A loss prevention officer at The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, was called for the second time to a guest room after receiving a complaint of children playing hockey in the hallway. A typical response might have been to knock on the family’s door and ask them to be quiet. But Ritz-Carlton encourages its employees to think for themselves as they live by the company’s “Gold Standards.” These standards invite empowering questions such as:

  • How can I respond to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests?
  • How can I create unique, memorable, and personal experiences for our guests?

Rather than tell the parents to shush their hallway-hockey-playing kids, the loss prevention officer came up with a creative solution. He enlisted banquet employees to isolate space in one of the meeting rooms and create a hockey rink, using banquet tables as a frame. While the “rink” was being set up, he drove to a local sports store and bought two hockey nets, six sticks, and hockey balls. Finally, he delivered a written note to the family, inviting them to an impromptu hockey match against the Loss Prevention All-Stars.

Needless to say, the family was wowed.

A tight match was played between the Loss Prevention All-Stars and Team Family, with Team Family emerging victorious. The game was recorded on the Loss Prevention in-house cameras and Team Family was sent photos of their epic game.

Double-wow.

My friend Tony Robbins often says, “Successful people ask better questions and as a result, they get better answers.” So, ask yourself some empowering questions, and encourage your people to do the same.

Unforgettable Herb Kelleher

Last Thursday, we lost probably the finest corporate leader I have known in my leadership development career: Herb Kelleher, cofounder and longtime CEO and president of Southwest Airlines. Not only was Herb the visionary who created the model for a low-fare, customer-first airline, he believed every executive is only as good as his or her people. And he walked his talk. More than anybody I’ve ever worked with, Herb Kelleher lived and breathed the philosophy that the number one customer of any organization is its people.

I first met Herb through Southwest’s president emeritus, Colleen Barrett. When Colleen ordered 30,000 copies of the book I coauthored with Barbara Glanz called The Simple Truths of Service: Inspired by Johnny the Bagger, I was so blown away by the size of the order that I flew to Dallas to meet her. Because Colleen and Herb had worked together since 1967 nurturing and grooming Southwest Airlines into one of the most admired companies in the world, meeting Colleen’s mentor and teammate was a foregone conclusion. From the moment I met him, I loved Herb’s big smile, tremendous sense of humor, and ability to bring insight and laughter to any situation.

I could tell many tales about my fun times with Herb, but my favorite story happened just after he had recorded his foreword for the audio version of Colleen’s and my coauthored book Lead with LUV: A Different Way to Create Real Success.

“Let’s go get a drink!” said Herb. He was always ready to do that. We went back to my hotel where my wife, Margie, would be meeting me later so we could go to dinner with the board of directors for Halftime, a faith-based ministry founded by the late Bob Buford. (Margie still serves on the Halftime board.)

At the hotel bar, Herb and I started drinking sidecars, one of his favorite drinks, made up of three ingredients: Cognac, orange liqueur, and lemon juice. By the time Margie arrived, let’s just say Herb and I were feeling no pain. Margie could easily tell I was not in any shape to go to dinner with a bunch of faith-based folks. When she began to give Herb a One Minute Reprimand, he held up his hands in surrender, saying, “Margie, this was all Ken’s idea! I’m usually a teetotaler!” We all had a good laugh about that.

Margie said, “Okay, Ken, you can come to dinner—just don’t say anything.”

Herb, now getting into the absurdity of the situation, said, “That would be something to see!”

So I went to the dinner. The seating was organized in a circle. When the waiter came around to take our appetizer order, I whispered, “I notice you have chocolate cake à la mode. Bring me that for my appetizer.” When the waiter put the cake in front of me, all conversation around the table stopped and all attention was focused on me and my appetizer/dessert. The cat was out of the bag—I was plastered.

When I called Herb the next day and told him what had happened, he roared. Suffice to say it cost me a lot of backrubs over the next few weeks to get Margie’s full forgiveness. After that incident, every time Margie and I saw Herb, the first thing out of his mouth was “Margie, that was not my fault!” and then we’d all laugh.

I’ll miss Herb—and not just because of the fun, fabulous human being he was. Herb taught me a lot about what it takes to be a pioneer, a maverick, an innovator, and a fabulous motivator of people. To Herb, the “business of business” was people.

A lot of folks are going to miss you, Herb, including the many thousands of employees of Southwest Airlines. You were the best in the business. Rest in peace and God bless.

What’s Your Leadership Point of View?

Margie and I recently spent a wonderful weekend teaching our “Determining Your Leadership Point of View” class at the University of San Diego. It’s part of the Master of Science in Executive Leadership (MSEL) degree program offered by USD in partnership with our company.

I often start off training sessions with managers by asking: “How many of you consider yourself a leader?” Amazingly, only about 20 percent raise their hands. I think a lot of people believe that to be a leader you have to have a certain amount of power or an executive position—and for some reason they don’t think they have enough power or the right title yet. The second thing I say is: “Tell me about one or two people who have impacted your life the most.” Almost no one names a manager or supervisor; they all identify a parent, grandparent, their spouse or significant other, or a relative, coach, friend, or neighbor.

In life, everyone has the opportunity to lead. In fact, we all are leaders right now. Why do I say that? Because there are two different kinds of leadership roles: life (as a spouse, parent, or friend) and organizational (as a manager, supervisor, etc.). So everyone is a leader in some aspect of their life—even if they are a follower! In fact, my wife, Margie, wrote an article titled “In Praise of Followership” for the book Servant Leadership in Action. It’s all about how followers are also leaders.

Research proves that effective leaders exemplify and communicate to their followers a clear and consistent Leadership Point of View. The students in our MSEL class develop their own unique Leadership Point of View that they will be able to demonstrate to people who work with them. So often in organizations, people can’t figure out what’s important to their boss—what “makes them tick.” When direct reports are aware of their manager’s Leadership Point of View, that mystery is solved.

We tell our students that figuring out their unique Leadership Point of View is like writing a course on themselves. After they identify the people and events that have impacted their life the most, we ask them to think about what they learned from those people and experiences. How did those parts of their life influence their leadership style? What values did they instill? Then, based on those reflections, what do they expect of people who report to them now—and what can their people expect from them as a leader?

It is a fascinating process. As students unearth these thoughts and memories, they write their Leadership Point of View in a story format. Why? It’s a more authentic and personal way of communicating. Stories paint a picture that allows others to see the consistency between values, words, and actions. As students progress in their writing, they share their work in small groups of their classmates. At the end of the course, each student stands in front of the class and tells their leadership point of view story as if their fellow students were their team members at work. They get feedback from their classmates as well as from Margie and me.

What values have you developed through the important people and experiences in your life? Based on those reflections, what do you expect from your people and what can they expect from you as their boss? I’d love to hear your thoughts about the Leadership Point of View process in the comments below.

Now More Than Ever: A Leadership Vision for America

Several years ago, I was struck by how many people were expressing disappointment with what was going on in Washington. No matter which side of the political fence they were on, people agreed that special interests and partisan gridlock were hurting our nation’s ability to govern itself.

It occurred to me that four leadership secrets I’d learned over the years could lead to effective solutions to the problems in our nation’s capital. In response, I wrote a white paper entitled “A Leadership Vision for America: Rebuilding a Divided House.”

Recently, Don Miller—the bestselling author and creator of StoryBrand—was inspired by my four secrets and became determined to share my thinking with key people in Washington. Drawing on his extensive contacts, he and our Blanchard colleague, Sheri Lyons, were able to present my white paper and discuss its ideas with key people in the office of the vice president in Washington, DC.

You may remember the 12-part blog series I wrote from June 2012 – November 2012 about those leadership secrets. Here they are in a nutshell:

  • Create a Compelling Vision. We no longer know what business we are in as a country (our purpose), what we are trying to accomplish (our picture of the future) or what should drive our behavior as a country (our values). The Bible says that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” That doesn’t sound promising! We need a big picture vision we can all agree upon.
  • Treat citizens as business partners. Most of us are in the dark about the bills that are being passed and generally what’s going on besides chaos. We need greater transparency in government.
  • Invite every sector of society to the table. There are several sectors in our nation. In the public sector we have government, education, and the military. In the private sector we have business, the media, and the arts. In the social sector we have families, faith-based organizations, and nonprofits. Right now, the only two big voices are government and business; the other sectors are left out of the process. We need all voices to be heard and considered.
  • Elect servant leaders. Servant leaders do not focus on winning. Instead, they focus on the well-being of the communities they serve. Until we elect representatives who put service ahead of ego and ideology, our government won’t improve.

In the years since I wrote “A Leadership Vision for America,” disappointment with Washington has turned to embarrassment. We certainly need some different thinking if we are going to rebuild a divided house. In the meantime, let’s pray that representatives in our nation’s capital start caring more about helping America regain its reputation as “a shining city upon a hill” than getting re-elected.

 

Love is the Answer. What is the Question?

Today I’m finishing up my five-part blog series on the nine elements of love as conceived by Henry Drummond, a 19th century author, in his book The Greatest Thing in the World. Drummond based his nine elements of love on the “love passage” from the Bible—1 Corinthians 13:4-8.

We are on Drummond’s seventh element of love, which is Good Temper:

“Love as good temper restrains the passions and is not exasperated. It corrects a sharpness of temper and sweetens and softens attitudes. Love as good temper is never angry without a cause, and endeavors to confine the passions within proper limits. Anger cannot rest in the heart where love reigns. It is hard to be angry with those we love in good temper, but very easy to drop our resentments and be reconciled.”

Drummond spends more time on this element then any other. Why? Because if you tend to lose your temper and start yelling at people, you will negate all the other elements of love—patience, kindness, generosity, humility, and all the rest. A bad temperament can get you off a loving track easier than anything else. There’s just no place for it if you want to be a loving person. So if you’re somebody who tends to lose your temper, when you feel it coming on, take a walk around the block and come back when you’re ready to deal with the issue in a calm way.

Drummond identified Guilelessness as the eighth element of love this way:

“Love as guilelessness thinks no evil, suspects no ill motive, sees the bright side, and puts the best construction on every action. It is grace for suspicious people. It cherishes no malice; it does not give way to revenge. It is not apt to be jealous and suspicious.

I had never heard the word guilelessness before I read this passage. It’s about always seeing the brighter side of life. My mom always told me, “Ken, don’t let anybody act like they’re better than you but don’t you act like you’re better than anybody else. God did not make junk! There’s a pearl of goodness in everyone. Dig for it and you’ll find it!” My wife, Margie, thinks I’m a guilelessness fanatic because I always see the good in people. One of the things that attracted her to me was that I had a lot of odd friends other people had written off. But I saw the good in them and maybe that brought out the good in them.

Sincerity is the final element of love Drummond talks about:

“Love as sincerity takes no pleasure in doing injury or hurt to others or broadcasting their seeming miscues. It speaks only what is known to be true, necessary, and edifying. It bears no false witness and does not gossip. It rejoices in the truth.”

This element also reminds me of my mother. She rejoiced in the truth. She would tell me, “Never lie. Always tell the truth. Mean what you say and say what you mean.” That’s the way Mom was. She gave it to you straight. She modeled sincerity.

Well, that ends my blog series about love—one of my favorite words and one of my favorite topics. I always say, “Love is the answer! What is the question?” because I believe love is the answer to just about any dilemma human beings can come up with. You can make all the money in the world, get tons of recognition, and have lots of power and status—and yet when you die, as my friend John Ortberg says, “it all goes back in the box.” The only thing that remains is your soul, where you store who you loved and who loved you.

So be sure to practice patience, kindness, generosity, courtesy, humility, unselfishness, good temper, guilelessness, and sincerity. And I’ll add one of Margie’s favorite phrases: Always keep your I love you’s up to date. God bless!