What type of leader do you want to be?
A few years ago we were both lucky enough to be able to see one of our leadership hero’s in person – Mr Ken Blanchard! He certainly didn’t disappoint us. He really does embody all the things he writes and talks about, and you can really see they are his true beliefs.
However rather than just write a blog hero worshiping Ken (easy as that would be!), we wanted to recount a particular story he told us that totally highlighted the entire theme of his talk which was ‘Servant Leadership’. We should say at this point we probably won’t be able to tell it as well as Ken, but we’ll give it a good go.
So you might imagine Ken is often in demand to attend seminars and give talks to people like us and this story was about one of these trips in particular.
It was a Tuesday afternoon and having spent a busy morning at his office he found he was running slightly late for an internal domestic flight, (think it was to Detroit, but really not that important to the story). He rushed home, grabbed his bag that his wife Margi had dutifully packed for him and raced off to the airport. He lined up at the check in desk and patiently waited for his turn, relieved to have made it on time for the flight. However when the lady at the desk asked him for his ID, he discovered he didn’t have anything on him at all. (When telling this story he is far too much of a gentleman to blame Margi for this oversight).
Realising that without ID there was no way he was going to be allowed on the plane, he knew he needed to get creative. So with an acknowledgement to the lady at the desk, he darted off to the bookshop located in the terminal building. He was delighted to find that one of his books was proudly sitting on the shelf, so he grabbed it and made his way back to the desk. At this point in the story Ken remarked he was delighted his book was on the shelf for two reasons – one it potentially solved his immediate dilemma (come back to that in a mo) and secondly it was great to see his book was still available to buy. Anyway back to the story…
On reaching the check in desk again he presented the lady with his book and pointed to the back cover, where there was a photo of him. He said ‘I know it’s a long shot, but would you mind asking your manager if you can accept this as ID, as I really need to be on this flight’. He fully expected the lady to make her excuses and go and find her manager, so he / she could make the decision, as he was clearly asking the company to step outside of regulations. However much to his amazement, she took one look at the photo on the book and said ‘no problem Mr Blanchard, I can clearly see that you are who you say you are, thank you for being so resourceful, here’s your ticket and have a nice flight’. With that she issued the ticket.
Ken uses this story to highlight how the company South West Airlines have successfully embodied the principles of ‘servant leadership’ – they have empowered all their frontline staff to make decisions without the need for referral to a manager. Their whole culture is geared around this concept and all the managers are really clear that their job is to develop their people to make all the decisions and create an environment where they feel supported and confident. They literally work to help their staff do their job better, hence the ‘servant’ title!
There’s a great quote from Ken’s book -Leading at a higher level, which explains what he means by servant leadership:
‘People think you can’t lead and serve at the same time. Yet you can if you understand – leadership has two parts: vision and implementation. In the visionary role, leaders define direction… communicate what the organisation stands for and wants to accomplish. Once people are clear on where they are going the leader’s role shifts to a service mind-set for the implementation. [This is about] constantly trying to find out what their people need to perform well. Rather than wanting people to please their bosses, servant leaders want to make a difference in the lives of their people, and in the process, impact the organisation.’ Ken Blanchard – Leading at a Higher Level
By adopting a servant leadership model, South West Airlines to this day receives the highest customer satisfaction scores of any American airline and also has the lowest number of complaints recorded. It is the world’s largest low cost airline and carries the most domestic passengers of any US airline.
When Ken was telling his story he was convinced if his flight that day had been with any other airline he would have needed to explain his predicament to at least two layers of management before they would even have thought about approving him for travel.
Having told us his story on the day we saw him in London, Ken posed us all one last question before he left…
‘What type of leader do you want to be – one that demands compliance and exerts authority, or one that empowers, builds confidence and creates an environment for their people to thrive?’ For us, it’s a total no brainer!
Thanks for reading
Martin & Elizabeth