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!

Timeless Principle #1: Leadership Is a Partnership

My son, Scott, and I have been working together on a book about six 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. Today I’ll be introducing the first principle: Leadership Is a Partnership.

When I was in graduate school in the 1960s, scholars identified two leadership styles: autocratic and democratic. Autocratic leaders direct people to perform and use their position power to get results. Democratic leaders, on the other hand, use their personal power and involve others in problem-solving and decision-making. Back in the 1960s, leadership was viewed as an either/or proposition between these two styles.

While the autocratic/democratic leadership debate was raging in graduate schools, in the real world of business, top-down leadership was the most widely practiced style. The leader was generally viewed as the person in charge who told people what, when, where, and how to do things.

In our 1969 book Management of Organizational Behavior, Paul Hersey and I presented a situational approach to leadership, which our company now calls SLII®.  This approach is based on our finding that the best leadership style is the one that matches the developmental needs of the person you’re working with.

Using SLII®, leaders partner with people, using directive and supportive styles as needed to help them reach their highest level of development. Regardless of what style a leader uses, the principle underlying SLII® is that leadership is a partnership between the leader and their direct report.

In the mid-20th century, the idea of a leader partnering with their direct report was revolutionary. It was generally believed that once you got into a position of power, leadership was something you did to people. We believed then—and we believe today—that leadership is something you do with people.

Over time, our belief that leadership is a partnership has become accepted as valid and true—at least in academic circles. Unfortunately, too many leaders in the real world still operate from the antiquated notion that leaders should make all the decisions and dictate all the tasks.

Shift to a Partnering Mindset

Leaders must make a conscious choice to reject the command-and-control mindset. This requires a major shift in attitude. The most crucial place where this shift must occur is in the mind of every leader. This is not always easy to do, as the autocratic mindset is embedded in business jargon. For example, the word “subordinate” is still sometimes used to describe a direct report. This implies that the leader is somehow superior to the follower, rather than a partner. Another example is the way some managers still talk about disciplining employees, as if their role is to punish their direct reports like children.

For many leaders accustomed to the autocratic style, it’s hard to switch to a mindset that shares responsibility with their direct reports. They feel it is their responsibility as leaders to tell people what to do, how to do it, and why it needs to be done. They believe they would be avoiding responsibility to ask direct reports what they think needs to be done and how they would go about achieving those goals. These leaders may need encouragement and support to change to a partnering approach.

Discover the Power of Partnering

Research has shown that when people are empowered to make decisions and take initiative, the organization benefits overall. Why? Because, as Don Carew, Eunice Parisi-Carew, and I wrote in our book The One Minute Manager Builds High Performing Teams:

No one of us is as smart as all of us.

When leaders adopt a partnership mindset, they realize that they and their direct reports play key parts on the same team. Rather than leading through control, they gain people’s trust and work together to achieve success on the goals they are both responsible for. This partnership approach leads to impressive results that are simply not possible when all of the authority has moved up the hierarchy and leaders shoulder all the responsibility for success.

What are your attitudes and practices around leadership? Are you setting goals and reviewing progress together with your direct reports, or are you dictating what needs to be done and how? If it’s the latter, it may be time to update your leadership style.

The Many Values of an Industry Conference

Scott, Margie, and I recently attended an annual industry conference called ISA—The Association of Learning Providers. ISA is a unique organization where members who are competitors in the training, learning, and talent development industry come together to help each other. The goal is to strengthen our industry through the strengths of each business by sharing our best practices.

Our company has been a member of ISA for more than 40 years. We love to attend these meetings because everyone is very upbeat and excited about exchanging ideas we can all benefit from. The only thing we don’t share is sales strategies. We always come away from this conference proud to be in our field and we never fail to bring home some good learnings. It’s a wonderful opportunity to spend time with knowledgeable, energy-filled colleagues in our industry.

While I was at the conference, I had a chance to visit with longtime colleagues Bill Byham, cofounder and executive chairman of DDI, and Jack Zenger, cofounder and CEO of Zenger Folkman and best-selling business author. We’ve all been in the leadership development business around six decades. Some would call us competitors, but I like to use the word co-petitor instead when I talk about people like Bill and Jack. Why? Because we have more things in common than we have differences—and we truly respect each other and our respective contributions. We really enjoyed being together at ISA and sharing stories.

A big takeaway for Margie, who has always been interested in exploring the future of our business, was learning more about artificial intelligence (AI) and its challenges and opportunities for our industry. She even went home after the retreat and tried out ChatGPT, an AI program that follows instructions and provides responses. Amazing!

From the ISA website: Founded in 1978, ISA remains committed to helping training, performance and talent development firms build, enhance, and share their success. Our membership includes more than 80 companies that are contributing to the success of more than 100,000 clients across the Fortune 500. Both in person and online, ISA members ask questions, share their knowledge, and engage in rich discussion and the roll-up-your-sleeves work of growing a business and keeping it strong. Members come together to learn key business insights, share their collective wisdom, expand their resources, and enhance their results. By creating a safe place for disclosure, the association focuses on developing the business acumen of its members to ensure their continued success for their businesses and their clients.

If you belong to an organization that participates in industry conferences or retreats, I urge you to attend one if you can. I guarantee you’ll learn things you never knew about your business. You’ll meet people you might stay in touch with for decades. And you’ll come back inspired and reenergized about your job, your team, your organization, and your industry.

Needless to say, I’m a big fan of industry conferences. In fact, our company is participating in a different conference in May—the ATD (Association for Talent Development) International Conference and Expo—which will be held right here in San Diego. I’ll tell you all about that event in a few weeks. Stay tuned!

5 Ways to Retain Top Talent

We’re fortunate at The Ken Blanchard Companies to have dozens of talented people who’ve been with us for 10, 20, 30 years and more! These long-term employees bring value to our organization in so many ways. They have developed deep, trusting relationships with our clients and associates. Because they know our business inside and out, they’re effective and efficient. They’re a wonderful resource for newer employees, who can call on them for knowledge and support.

I don’t think it’s an accident that we have so many long-timers at our company. Over the years, our leadership team has made an ongoing effort to connect with our people, listen to their feedback, and meet their needs. As a result, many of them have fallen in love with our business and stayed for the long term. We value their contributions and are honored they’re part of our team.

It’s no secret that the cost of losing good people is high. A recent study showed that replacing an employee can cost a full third of that employee’s annual salary. With an average turnover rate of 18%, those expenses can add up quickly.

If you’d like to attract employees who will stay engaged and committed to your organization, here are five suggested best practices.

1. Recognize People

According to a Pew research study, 57% of the Americans who quit their jobs in 2021 left because they felt disrespected at work. Don’t let this happen in your organization. Treat people with respect by telling them you appreciate them and why.

What if you grew up in a family that didn’t openly express appreciation for one another, and acknowledging people makes you feel uncomfortable? My advice is to “fake it till you make it” and do it anyway. Catch people doing things right and give them detailed, specific praise for their accomplishments.

While it’s important for companies to pay people well and provide benefits, don’t underestimate the power of recognizing people for their contributions. After analyzing 1.7 million employee survey responses, A Great Place to Work found that the most important driver of good work was recognition (37%), not promotions (4%) or more pay (7%).

At Blanchard, we bake recognition into our culture with our People’s Choice Awards. The awards tie into the values our company seeks to live. The Dream Team Award, the Authenticity Award, the Most Values-Led Player Award, and the Unsung Hero Award are just a few examples.

2: Partner with People

One of the most effective ways to retain your best people is to be there for them over the long term. That means regularly setting goals with them and giving them appropriate direction and support, depending on their development level on each task.

Goal setting is an ongoing process, not just something you do once a year at performance review time. Meet with each of your direct reports at least twice a month to listen to their concerns and ask how you can help them succeed in achieving their goals.

3. Keep Showing Up for People

One mistake a lot of managers make is that once a direct report becomes good at their job, the manager disappears on them. Don’t ghost your people. While it’s great to give self-reliant achievers autonomy, everybody needs acknowledgment. Keep showing people that you’re behind them by giving them clear, specific feedback on their work. And if something goes wrong, help them get back on track. Whatever you do, don’t become a seagull manager who flies in, makes a lot of noise, dumps on everyone, and flies out. That’s a management style I hoped would go out of fashion by now. Unfortunately, it’s still around.

4. Help People Grow

If a company is going to retain top talent, it must provide growth opportunities. Recently, our company offered a series of meetings to help people explore career development at Blanchard. On an individual level, help your direct reports grow by giving them a stretch project—something they haven’t done before—and let them know you’ll be there to provide direction and support if they get stuck. Not only will this empower your people, it also will benefit the organization by building skills and bench strength.

5. Let People Be Human

Organizations are made up of human beings—at least until AI and the robots take over! Human beings function best when they have a work-life balance. If you want people to stick around year after year, don’t pass judgment on them when they take time for themselves and their families. In fact, encourage them to do so.


Many research studies suggest that there are very real benefits to being in a successful long-term relationship: couples who stay together are healthier, wealthier, and happier. I think the same thing may be true for organizations. Start putting these five practices to work today to keep your top talent for the long term—and let me know how it goes!

3 Lessons I Learned from a Worldwide Pandemic

It’s hard to believe that it’s been three years since the COVID-19 virus upended all our lives. So much has changed since March 2020. My wife, Margie, often says, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Meaning that when things go wrong, she looks for the opportunity in the crisis by asking, “What’s good about this?”

For me personally, COVID drove home three important lessons.

Lesson #1: Change is inevitable—and that can be a good thing.

The pandemic fundamentally changed the way our company—and millions of other organizations—do business. Zoom came alive and permitted us all to communicate more frequently with people near and far. Our company has associates from all around the world. With Zoom, our global people can now participate in our virtual, all-company meetings on a level playing field, without feeling like outsiders.

Another upside to the pandemic was discovering that we didn’t have to travel to be productive. I’m able to give keynotes and consult with clients right from my office—either at company headquarters or at home. We can get together in person when it makes sense to do so, but we no longer have to spend so much time on the road or on airplanes.

We’ve discovered that with today’s technology, people can be just as productive—if not more so—from their home offices. Most people still go into the office at least a couple of days a week, but it’s easier on the planet and people’s stress levels to not have to commute every single day.

Lesson #2: It’s important to plan for the future.

It’s the responsibility of leaders to prepare for the future. But most people find that it’s difficult to manage day-to-day operations and plan for the future at the same time. That’s why my wife, Margie, created the Office of the Future when she was the president of our company.

The Office of the Future looked at trends five, ten, and twenty years out. Because our company had already anticipated online learning and invested in digital technologies, we weren’t caught completely flat-footed when the pandemic hit. All the energy we had put into planning for the digital future really helped us survive when classroom training was shut down by the virus.

What about your organization? What steps can you be taking now to make sure that you’ll be ready when the next disruption occurs?

Lesson #3: Keep your I-love-you’s up to date.

Sadly, the pandemic took many lives. It’s hard to find an upside to losing people you love. However, those losses drive home how important it is to communicate our love to those we hold dear. Don’t wait for the perfect moment; do it as soon as you think about that person. Remember:

Nice thoughts not communicated mean squat.

It’s just as important to express our love on a regular basis to the people we live with, so that those relationships stay healthy. If you’re not feeling loving, figure out why and deal with it. Small resentments can turn into big problems over time. When the pandemic hit, the lockdowns tested a lot of marriages—and some didn’t pass that test. Don’t let that happen to you. Catch your partner doing things right on a regular basis.

What about you? In what way is your life different now than before the pandemic? What lessons have you learned from it? Take a few minutes to stop, think, and answer these questions. As Margie would put it, don’t let the COVID-19 crisis go to waste. Reflecting on your experiences is one of the most powerful ways to learn from them.