Servant Leadership in Action

When people ask Ken Blanchard what he wants his legacy to be, he is quick to answer, “Servant leadership.”

That surprises some people who might expect him to point to his company’s flagship leadership program, Situational Leadership® II, or his best-selling business book, The One Minute Manager®.

Blanchard explains he is proud of the concepts within those products and how they have been widely accepted around the world. But over the last decade, he’s realized that the reason the concepts are well recognized is that they are examples of servant leadership in action—which he believes is the only way to achieve great relationships and great results.

“The world is in desperate need of a new leadership model,” explains Blanchard. “Too many leaders have been conditioned to think of leadership only in terms of power and control. But there is a better way to lead—one that combines equal parts serving and leading.”

In a new book, Servant Leadership in Action, coming out in March, Blanchard has invited more than 40 leaders from diverse backgrounds and industries to share their experiences with servant leadership. Here are a few of their stories.

Southwest Airlines

Colleen Barrett, president emeritus, Southwest Airlines, explains how servant leadership has been a key principle of success since the airline’s founding.

“For more than 40 years all of the leaders at Southwest Airlines have tried to model servant leadership. Herb Kelleher, our founder, led the way clearly—although I don’t think he knew what the expression servant leadership meant until we told him. Herb and I have always said that our purpose in life as senior leaders with Southwest Airlines was to support our people. At Southwest, our entire philosophy of leadership is still quite simple: treat your people right and good things will happen.

“We try in every way to let our employees know they are important and empowered to make a positive difference on a daily basis. Servant leadership isn’t soft management—it’s simply the right thing to do.”

That level of support manifests itself in many different ways at Southwest.  Barrett tells a heartwarming story of servant leadership in action that happened at Southwest a few years ago when a grandfather had to make last-minute reservations to be with a dying grandchild.

“The man was away from home in an unfamiliar city when he learned his grandson was dying and had only a couple of hours to live. The grandfather was desperately trying to get to him.

“Without any managerial intervention, our reservation agent directed the grandfather to head to the airport while she started working to clear obstacles from her end,” Barrett said. “She called the ground ops station at the airport, got hold of a ticket agent, and explained what the situation was. The ticket agent bought the grandfather a ticket with her own money, then went to the TSA checkpoint and told them she would be escorting a passenger who needed to make a flight. She then contacted the gate and explained the situation. The gate attendant, in turn, notified the captain on the flight.

“When it was time to push back, the pilot asked the ticket agent how close the grandfather was to arriving and learned the man was still about ten minutes away. The captain thought about it for a moment, then walked out of the cockpit to the front of the airplane and explained the situation to the passengers. He said, ‘We are going to wait for this gentleman. I think it’s the right thing to do.’ After listening to the captain’s explanation for the delay, the passengers broke into applause. When the grandfather arrived ten minutes later, he couldn’t believe the captain had held the plane for him. The captain’s response was, ‘Sir, this airplane wasn’t going anyplace without me—and I wasn’t going anyplace without you.’”

Synovus Financial

James Blanchard (no relation to Ken Blanchard) is the former CEO of Synovus Financial—a company whose servant leadership culture goes all the way back to 1888 when the founders of Columbus Bank and Trust Company were in the cotton mill business.

One day when a woman was working on a loom in the mill, her skirt got caught on the machine. The hem ripped and her life savings came spilling out on the floor. The hem of her skirt was the safest place she knew to keep her money. That day, the founders decided they could do better for their employees—so they started a bank that would serve as a trusted place for their workers’ life savings. The Synovus culture of service began the moment that woman’s savings spilled onto the floor.

“Over the years our name changed and we grew,” says Blanchard, “but our servant leadership culture endured and became even stronger. A few criticized us, saying the approach was too soft and permissive. So we had to prove it was the exact opposite—that people who were loved, respected, and prepared would perform better. Servant leadership led to higher performance and there was nothing permissive about it. We loved our people and we expected high performance. I believe when you truly care about someone, you not only love them but also expect the best from them and hold them to it.”

That approach has paid off for Synovus. In 1999, the company was named Fortune’s No. 1 Best Place to Work in America. They were on the list so often, in fact, the magazine asked them to stop entering and made them the first inductee into the Best Places to Work Hall of Fame.

“It was a great validation of our aspirations and our actions,” says CEO Blanchard. “I have been retired from Synovus for years but the pursuit of a servant leadership culture at Synovus was my greatest and most favorite satisfaction.”

Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

When Cheryl Bachelder accepted the role of Popeyes CEO in November 2007, the company had been struggling.  Relationships with franchisees were not at the level they needed to be. Even so, a comment from a veteran franchisee caught her by surprise: “Don’t expect us to trust you anytime soon.”

Bachelder and her team decided to focus on servant leadership principles for turning around business performance.

“We began calling the franchisees our ‘number one customer.’ More important, as servant leaders, we began treating them that way. Our first principle was to respect and admire our owners’ passion for their work. Next, we listened to their needs and we accepted our roles and responsibilities in making things right. Finally, we put our owners’ interests above our own.”

The approach was a huge success. Relationships and business outcomes flourished. During the period from 2007 to 2016, under Bachelder’s leadership, Popeyes became a prosperous enterprise again. Franchise owners were served well: 95 percent rated their satisfaction with the Popeyes system at good or very good and 90 percent said they would recommend Popeyes to another franchisee.

“When we started, we didn’t know servant leadership would drive our success. We didn’t have a plaque in the office that stated our purpose and principles. What we did have was a team of leaders who were willing to put the success of the people and the enterprise before their own interests.”

The Power of Love, Not the Love of Power

A few years ago, Ken Blanchard received a letter from a man in New Zealand with a line that he believes sums up his leadership philosophy. The man said, “Ken, you are in the business of teaching people the power of love rather than the love of power.”

Servant leaders are constantly trying to find out what their people need to perform well and to live according to their organization’s vision. Rather than wanting employees to please their bosses, servant leaders want to make a difference in their employees’ lives and in their organizations. In top organizations, leaders believe if they do a good job serving their employees and show they truly care about them, the employees will, in turn, practice that same philosophy with customers.

Blanchard says, “We need servant leadership advocates and I nominate you. Go forth and spread the word to everyone who will listen. And remember: your job is to teach people the power of love rather than the love of power. After all, servant leadership is love in action.”


Would you like to learn more about servant leadership principles and how to apply them in your own organization?  Then join us for a free livecast on February 28!

Servant Leadership in Action Livecast

February 28, 2018 from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m. Pacific Time

Join best-selling business author Ken Blanchard and 20 other successful leaders for an in-depth look into the concept of servant leadership and how it can transform the culture and performance of your organization.  You’ll explore:

  • What is servant leadership?
  • How does it work in today’s organizations?
  • The role leaders play
  • How to get started
  • How to keep it growing

You’ll hear personal and powerful stories from 20 of today’s most inspiring servant leaders. You’ll be motivated to act after seeing how others have achieved great relationships and results in their organizations through servant leadership.

Attend this online event to:

  • Gain a clear understanding of this proven leadership model
  • Learn the fundamentals of servant leadership
  • Discover how other companies have achieved results
  • Acquire ideas of how servant leadership could look in your organization

People lead best when they serve first.  Don’t miss this opportunity to learn how servant leadership principles can take your organization’s performance to the next level.

The event is free courtesy of Berrett-Koehler Publishers and The Ken Blanchard Companies. To learn more, visit the Servant Leadership in Action Livecast registration page.

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