Spotlight on …Ken Blanchard

Pioneer of leadership and management thinking Ken Blanchard provides a look at what makes him tick.

Ken Blanchard, one of the most influential leadership experts in the world, is the co-author of the iconic bestseller, The One Minute Manager® – revised and released this year as The New One Minute Manager – and 60 other books related to learning and development. 

In 1979 Blanchard, with his wife Margie, co-founded The Ken Blanchard Companies®, an international management training and consulting company headquartered in San Diego, California. He is also the co-founder of Lead Like Jesus, a worldwide organisation committed to helping people become servant leaders.

Ken began his career as an assistant to the dean in the College of Business Administration at Ohio University, where he became an assistant professor. During that time he met Professor Paul Hersey and together they wrote Management of Organisational Behavior: Utilizing Human Resources. 

Ken has received numerous awards and honours for his contributions in the fields of management, leadership and speaking. The National Speakers Association awarded him its highest honour, the Council of Peers Award of Excellence. He was inducted into the HRD Hall of Fame by Training magazine and he received the Golden Gavel Award from Toastmasters International. Ken also received the Thought Leadership Award from ISA – the Association of Learning Providers. 

When he’s not writing or speaking, Ken teaches students in the Master of Science in Executive Leadership Program at the University of San Diego.

Why training and how did you start?

In 1970 I went to the University of Massachusetts as a professor of leadership and organisational behaviour. While on sabbatical in 1979, I was invited to a Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) event at the University of Hawaii. On Monday I taught a session on leadership and about 250 of the 1,200 attendees came. Word got around that I was a pretty good speaker. Two days later I did a session on motivation, and about 700 attended. Friday’s session drew the whole conference.

Some of the people asked what I planned to do after my sabbatical. “Go back to the university,” I replied. They said, “You’re crazy! When you’re hot, you’re hot. Start your own company.”  I told them Margie and I couldn’t even balance our chequebook – how could we start our own company? They said, “We’ll help you.” And so, five YPOers helped Margie and me start Blanchard Training and Development, which is now called The Ken Blanchard Companies®. 

Who or what inspires you?

As for who inspires me, my mom and dad were my heroes and the people who inspired me early on. 

My mom was my greatest cheerleader. She told me I laughed before I cried, sang before I talked, and danced before I walked. Mom always said that there was a pearl of good in everyone. I agree with that; today I believe that leadership is about bringing out that goodness.

My dad, who retired as a rear admiral in the US Navy, modelled for me integrity, courage, loyalty, and humour.  I learnt one of my greatest leadership lessons from Dad when I was in seventh grade. I had just been elected president of my class and came home all puffed up about it. My father said, “Ken, that’s great. But now that you’ve got that leadership position, don’t use it. People follow leaders because they like and respect them, not because they have power.”

As for what inspires me, I’m genuinely excited by the amazing potential within human beings. People are incredible; it’s just their behaviour that’s a problem sometimes. Great leaders are aware of that, and know how to bring out the highest and best in others.

What has been your lowest moment, and what your noblest hour? 

My lowest moment professionally was very early in my career, when I tried to get a position as a dean of students. Becoming a dean was the primary reason I was getting my doctorate degree. I had great interviews with Wesleyan, Northern Illinois, Dartmouth, and Colorado State. They all said they were going to invite me on campus. Yet nobody did. So I called the person at Dartmouth that I’d had such a great interview with and asked him why he hadn’t invited me back to his campus. 

He told me I had two awful evaluations in my placement file. Those were the days when you would ask people to write a letter to your placement file but you couldn’t see what they said. Both letters said I was a wonderful guy and I was great with students, but that I didn’t have much academic interest. That was a deal breaker, because all the jobs I was applying for involved working with faculty. So I ended up going out to Ohio University to work for the dean of the College of Business as his administrative assistant. While that wasn’t the job I was aspiring to, it led to great things.

My noblest hour was when I married Margie. I always like to say that I married above myself. Margie is a true partner with an incredible mind, a passion for learning, and a wonderfully calm disposition. I love spending quiet time with her.

What and when was your career turning point? 

The dean at Ohio University insisted I teach a course – and that’s when I realised I should be teaching. I became an assistant professor in the College of Business there, which is where Paul Hersey and I wrote The Management of Organisational Behaviour and began developing Situational Leadership®.

Another big turning point was meeting Spencer Johnson and writing The One Minute Manager.  By this time, Margie and I had co-founded our company. When The One Minute Manager hit bookstores in 1982, the phones at our company began ringing off their hooks. The book made the New York Times bestseller list in less than a week and it didn’t budge from the list for three years. 

The response was crazy. We almost went out of business because so many things came at us all at once.

Describe your best learning and development experience? 

Elementary and junior high school gave me some of my best learning and development experiences, because these schools taught me all about diversity. Roosevelt Elementary – about 11 miles from New York City by train – was a predominantly Jewish school. In junior high it merged with Lincoln Elementary, which was about 95 per cent black. (It’s now called Albert Leonard Middle School.) Having good friends from a variety of backgrounds taught me so much about people – how to connect with, love, and appreciate them. I became the compromise candidate in school elections. I was elected president by my classmates in both junior and high school, and spoke at both graduation ceremonies. That’s when I began to learn about leadership and development first-hand.

What’s next in your career?

I’ve authored or co-authored something like 62 books – and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Right now I’m really excited by the book I’m writing about cross-generational mentoring. My co-author, Claire Diaz-Ortiz, is a 33-year-old former vice president of Twitter. She’s the person who got the Pope on Twitter! Not only does Claire bring a younger person’s perspective to the book, she also brings knowledge from Stanford and Oxford and skills from Silicon Valley. Learning is one of my top values, and writing is a wonderful way to live that value. 

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