Reflections on Leadership
What’s changed, what’s endured, what lies ahead BY KEN BLANCHARD
Chief Learning Officer author, Ken Blanchard's headshot.
Ken Blanchard is chief spiritual officer of The Ken Blanchard Cos. and co-author of “Servant Leadership in Action.” He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

’m excited to celebrate two important milestones in my life this year: the 40th anniversary of The Ken Blanchard Cos. and my 80th birthday. This seems like a good time for me to reflect on what has changed in our industry and what has endured, how we’ve managed to stay resilient as a company, and what lies ahead.

First, what has changed?

The biggest change in leadership I see today compared to 40 years ago is the marked increase in servant leadership advocates and practitioners around the world. Top-down leadership is slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past. Today’s leaders have found that when they work alongside their people, they not only build great relationships but also get great results for their organization. To me, a culture that serves both internal and external customers is essential for companies everywhere today — period.

When leaders set the vision and direction for their organization, that is the leadership aspect of servant leadership. It is a mindset. Once the vision and direction are clear, the servant aspect of servant leadership begins. That’s where leaders work for their people to help them develop the skill set they need to accomplish the goals. This is all done within a framework of service to others. No matter what leadership approach you use today, keeping your valuable people happy is key — and that’s all about side-by-side leadership.

So, what has endured?

Even with the increasing number of servant leaders, the need for great leadership persists. Where can you find people with strong leadership potential? That’s easy. They are found working side by side with their boss — a successful, service-oriented leader. Great leaders would rather develop their people than promote themselves because they know leadership is not about them — it’s about the people they serve. These leaders don’t focus their efforts only on running great companies; they spend much of their time recognizing, encouraging and helping develop the leaders of the future.

How does a company stay resilient?

The best leaders know all the brains are not in their office. Companies survive tough times by trusting their people, keeping them informed and letting them bring their brains to work.

Top-down leadership is slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past.

Here’s an example. In 2008 when the U.S. economy was in a downward spiral, our company — like many other organizations — suffered a significant drop in sales. As we had done a few years earlier during the post-9/11 slump, we opened our books to our entire staff so they could appreciate our dilemma. At our all-company meeting in February 2009, more than 300 of our people gathered at tables in a hotel ballroom for a huge brainstorming activity. Half of the tables focused on how to increase revenue and the other half generated ideas for cutting costs. With everyone aware of the problem and involved in the solution, we got through the recession without needing to lay off a single person.

When tough times happen — and they will — the best action leaders can take is to keep reminding everyone of the organization’s vision, picture of the future, values and goals. Let people know what’s going on, where they fit in and how they can help.

The biggest trend I see in the future is mentoring, though I shouldn’t call it a trend because that suggests it’s just a passing fad. The mentoring process has countless benefits for both mentor and mentee. Professional growth and learning take place on both sides, trust deepens and relationships — sometimes even lifelong friendships — are born. What’s more, cross-generational mentoring provides the added value of a meaningful bond between two diverse individuals who otherwise may have never connected, delivering enhanced growth and learning opportunities for both.

This past May at the Association for Talent Development conference in Washington, D.C., we hosted a well-attended celebration in our booth with champagne, cupcakes, music and dancing to commemorate both our company’s anniversary and my birthday. The future is bright for our industry, with ever-growing numbers of leaders whose focus is on service and developing others, organizations whose people rally together during tough times, and endless opportunities to learn through mentoring. I am proud and grateful to be part of an industry that develops learners into leaders who continue to make a difference in every corner of the world by serving their people at a higher level.