Timeless Principle #3: Leadership Is Love

My son, Scott, and I have been working together on a book about six timeless principles that are essential to great leadership. These half-dozen principles reveal fundamental truths about working with others that every leader should know and practice. In this blog I’m introducing the third principle: “Leadership Is love.”

The first two principles—“Leadership is a partnership” and “A good leader catches people doing things right”—were revolutionary when I began talking about them in the 1970s and 1980s. Today these ideas are gaining a wider acceptance. But the third principle—”Leadership is love”—is still revolutionary.

People get nervous when they hear the word love applied to the workplace. They doubt that you can approach the tough reality of leading people and organizations with something as soft and fuzzy as love. What happens when things get hard? What happens when people don’t behave well, or when financial results aren’t what you need them to be? Many leaders believe that detachment is more useful than love in the business world.

I disagree. At Blanchard we believe that loving and respecting people leads to meaningful relationships and long term, positive results. Playing it safe by keeping people at arms-length simply doesn’t inspire the kind of commitment that creates great organizations.

I feel so passionately about this principle that I even wrote a book with a leader who shares our “Leadership is love” philosophy: Colleen Barrett, president emerita of Southwest Airlines. We called our book Lead with LUV and spelled it that way because LUV is the stock symbol of SW Airlines. Southwest Airlines is one of the few companies I’ve seen over the years that puts love into action. They are committed to loving their people, loving their customers, and loving their purpose: To connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, low-cost air travel.

Loving Leaders Versus Cranky Leaders

Like Colleen, the best leaders realize that they are here to love, not to be loved; they are here to serve, not to be served. Great leaders make the goals clear, roll up their sleeves, get their egos out of the way, and do whatever it takes to help people win.

Non-loving leaders—what my son, Scott, likes to call “cranky CFOs”—believe people are like pawns on a chessboard to be manipulated for the purpose of winning above all else. This approach may work for a while, but in the long run it’s a losing strategy because great results are only sustainable when people feel respected and valued.

We’ve experienced both kinds of leaders in our organization. Years ago, we hired a smart, driven person to be our company president. The only problem was, he didn’t love our people. Morale in the company plummeted under his leadership. After his departure, our company thrived.

That’s when my wife, Margie, and I realized that leadership isn’t just about love, it is love. Margie sums it up beautifully: “It’s loving your mission, it’s loving your people, it’s loving your customers, and it’s loving yourself enough to get out of the way so that other people can be magnificent.”

Unconditional Love in the Work Setting

One of the most revolutionary aspects of the “Leadership is love” principle is that this love is unconditional and not based on people’s performance. This means that you extend love and respect to people before they’ve earned it, while they’re still making mistakes. When you have love for someone in a work setting, you see them as a whole package, warts and all. You start from the assumption that God doesn’t make junk. You let people know that they’re fundamentally okay, and that you are on their side. This fosters trust.

Over time, leading with love transforms an organization’s culture. Direct reports emulate the leader’s loving behavior and start extending care and respect to others. This creates a culture where people feel safe, seen, and acknowledged. People throughout the organization become passionate about the company.

When your people are passionate about your organization, they share that passion with clients and customers. Those clients and customers become raving fans who express their love for your company to their friends, family, and followers on social media. In turn, your organization thrives. So, remember to lead with love!

If you’d like to hear more on this topic, join Scott and me for our 6 Enduring Principles of Leadership webinar on Thursday, May 25, 2023 at 7:00 AM PDT. The event is free, courtesy of Blanchard. And if you’re attending the ATD23 International Conference in San Diego, be sure to drop by the Blanchard booth and say hello!

Embracing Reality—and Mud—Is Better than Fighting it

We just had a fabulous wedding weekend at a place Margie and I call our “Farm” near Skaneateles Lake in upstate New York. The Farm is a five-acre plot of land, mostly lawn, with a house and a few outbuildings where we store family cars, boats, and other equipment when we aren’t in town.

Because of the beautiful view and the peaceful setting, our granddaughter, Hannah, and her devoted partner, Beth, decided the Farm was the perfect spot for their wedding and reception.

On the East Coast, the greatest unknown for summer weddings is the weather. It had been raining in central New York for almost two straight weeks and the forecast was for a wet wedding day. Our son, Scott, and daughter-in-law, Madeleine, not only had warned 130 guests to seriously consider their footwear, they had filled a big basket with Old Navy flip-flops for people to use and take home.

But on the day of the wedding, as our two families were gathering for pictures before the ceremony, the rain amazingly stopped. The sun gradually came out from behind the clouds during the reception—and the organizers opened the flaps of the big tent. This motivated a number of wedding guests to take off their shoes, walk out into the sunshine, and dance on the muddy grass! They had a ball and the rest of us had a lot of fun watching them.

In Scott’s words, “We were concerned that all the mud would dampen the fun. Instead, it had the opposite effect. Once the band started, people not only dealt with the mud, they embraced it. The dance floor spread from the tent to the muddy lawn. The way our guests danced in the mud was a beautiful demonstration of how resilient people can be when they decide to embrace, rather than fight, the reality they find themselves in. We had been so worried about the mud ruining the wedding—and yet the opposite occurred. No one will forget it.”

When I offered the prayer earlier at dinner, I emphasized one of my favorite sayings, “Love is the answer—what is the question?” The reason I did it was clear: all the festivities around this wedding were about love. Watching our families come together in such a joyous way was heartwarming. And there’s nothing more endearing than two people feeling unconditional love and support from their family and friends as they say their wedding vows. What a wonderful way to begin a new life together.

Whatever the question, love is the answer. And a little mud doesn’t hurt!

Taking Care of Each Other

My prayers and love go out to all of the folks whose lives have been impacted by the terrible fires in Northern and Southern California. Special prayers go out to families and friends of people who have perished in these fires. Times like this emphasize how much we need to care about each other and live every moment to the fullest—because we never know what’s around the corner.

Margie and I know what it’s like to have a home destroyed by fire: in 2007 we lost our house of 25 years in the Witch fire here in San Diego. We were out of town when it happened. When we were finally allowed back in our neighborhood, we walked down our driveway and our whole place looked like it had been cremated, including our cars. We were fortunate—although losing our house and all of our possessions was devastating, nobody got hurt.

Special praisings go out to the selfless firefighters who have come from all over to put their lives on the line as they battle the fires. Without them, the devastation could be so much worse. Many thanks as well to other courageous first responders including police and EMTs, as well as volunteers staffing the shelters that have been set up for displaced people, pets, and livestock. We are blessed to have these amazing servant leaders aiding our communities during this tough time.

Please take care of yourselves and those you love—and always keep your “I love yous” up to date!

The Unselfishness of Love in Action

Time for Part 4 of my “Elements of Love” series based on Henry Drummond’s nine elements of love from his book The Greatest Thing in the World.

Drummond’s sixth element is Unselfishness. Here’s what he writes about it:

“Love as unselfishness never seeks its own to the harm or disadvantage of others, or with the neglect of others. It often neglects its own for the sake of others; it prefers their welfare, satisfaction, and advantage to its own; and it ever prefers good of the community to its private advantage. It would not advance, aggrandize, enrich, or gratify itself at the cost and damage of the public.”

I interpret Drummond’s definition of unselfishness in many ways as being related to humility. It’s all about moving from a focus on yourself to concern about helping others. This is really a journey in life. How many of you have ever known a baby who came home from the hospital asking “How can I help around the house?” No, they’re screaming for what they want! Humans are naturally selfish beings. Being unselfish is a learned behavior.

My father modeled unselfishness for me when I was very young. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1924. Since World War I had ended and people thought that was the war to end all wars, the Navy didn’t think they needed as many officers at that time. As a result, my father was released after his senior cruise. In January 1925 he entered Harvard Business School with a major in finance and then headed to Wall Street to begin his career.

In 1940, when I was one year old, he was about to be made a vice president of National City Bank. Instead, he came home and said to my mother, “I quit my job today.”

My mother said, “To do what?”

“I rejoined the Navy.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”

My father responded, “Remember when we got married, I said that if the country ever got in trouble, I owed it something. Hitler is crazy and pretty soon the Japanese will be in this war.”

So my father went from being a potential bank vice president to a second lieutenant at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. When Pearl Harbor happened in December 1941, it looked like he was going to stay there because he was 40 years old with no naval experience. But that wasn’t my father’s style—so he called one of his classmates from the Academy who was a top person at the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Washington and said, “What do you have for an old fart with no experience? I’ve got to get in the action.”

His buddy said, “Let me see what I can find and I’ll get back to you.” A few days later he called my dad and said, “All I have for a guy with your experience is heading up a suicide group going into the Marshall Islands.”

My dad immediately said “You’ve got your man!” Of course, he didn’t tell my mother what his friend had said. He was given the command of twelve LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry) leading the first wave into the Marshall Islands. Well over half of his men were killed or wounded. I have a picture of me at five years old in a sailor suit saluting him as he got off the train, returning home after being away for more than two years.

All this to say my dad was the most unselfish person I have ever met. How about you? Who models or has modeled unselfishness for you in your life? Remember—just because we were all born selfish doesn’t mean we can’t master unselfish behavior as adults!

Breakfast with the Ancestors

This past weekend my wife Margie and I participated in a fun event we call Breakfast with the Ancestors. Margie made a couple of egg casseroles, our friend Mike baked some banana bread, and we took our feast out to a little cemetery at the end of the lake.

It all started many years ago when my sister, Sandy, passed away tragically at the age of 42. My grieving mom didn’t know where to bury Sandy. That got Margie and me thinking about mortality, and where our family might want to be buried someday.

When Margie asked her mom where she and her dad would like to be buried, her mom didn’t hesitate to answer. “On the hill in that little cemetery at the south end of the lake, in the town of Scott,” she said.

So back in the 1970s Margie and I bought five plots in that cemetery—with lifetime perpetual care—for the exorbitant price of $50 each! We got a plot for my sister, Sandy, a pair of plots for Margie’s mom and dad, and a pair of plots for ourselves.

Today, Margie’s mom and dad and my sister, Sandy, are buried in that little cemetery. Plus, there are two empty plots with tombstones that read, “Ken Blanchard, 1939—” and “Margie Blanchard, 1940—”.

Some people think that’s a little sick—particularly when Margie and I lie down in front of our tombstones and pose for photos! But we are enjoying living our “dash”—that interval between the date of our births and the date of our deaths.

Celebration does wonders for the soul. By having a picnic around the tombstones every summer—sharing stories and remembrances of relatives and even beloved family dogs who have passed away—our family celebrates everyone’s dash. How do you celebrate yours?