In an organization where empowerment is the watchword, all things are possible.

No magic elixir, no one-time effort, no management fad will make people gung-ho about the company they work for. Creating a positive environment is an ongoing commitment. I have often said that profit is the applause you get for taking care of your customers. That starts with building an organization that motivates and empowers the people who work there.

In Gung Ho!, a book I wrote with Sheldon Bowles, we present three lessons for building a positive work environment. The first lesson centers on the power of worthwhile work. People feel real joy from doing something they believe is meaningful. When Walt Disney started his theme park, he told his cast members (employees) that they were in the happiness business, which sounds a lot more exciting than the theme park business. Those in the financial services sector are really in the peace of mind business, which is a lot more appealing than financial services. In the same vein, many real estate salespeople talk about the value of helping people “reach the American dream.”

When you create an inspiring vision for your business, it can create excitement for everyone in your organization, which in turn can make customers excited about what you do.

BYOB (Bring Your Own Brain)

But creating the vision gets you only partway there. The second lesson of Gung Ho! is that positive organizations put their people in charge of achieving the goal. They train and develop people to bring their brains to work and take responsibility for making decisions.

At too many organizations, people are encouraged to leave their brains at home. The culture at these companies, either overt or implicit, is that work decisions are made from the top down.

Wayne Dyer, the great personal growth teacher, said years ago that there are two kinds of people in life: ducks and eagles. Ducks act like victims and go, “Quack! Quack! Quack!” Eagles take initiative and soar above the crowd. As a customer, you can always identify a bureaucracy if you have a problem and are confronted by ducks who quack, “It’s our policy. I didn’t make the rules—I just work here. Do you want to talk to my supervisor? Quack! Quack! Quack!”

Most of us have had experiences in which our requests for service have resulted in a lot of quacking and our needs not being met. More often than not, this kind of customer experience results from a failure on the part of organizational leaders to put their people in charge of achieving the goal.

Great service does not happen by accident. You have to train your people to take initiative and responsibility for solving customer problems. At the Ritz-Carlton, all new associates go through a six-week training program before they are ready to be full-time associates. Why does the program take so long? Because after the six-week training, a new associate is given a $2,000 discretionary fund that they can use to solve a customer’s problem without consulting anybody, including their boss. That makes gung-ho employees.

The third and final lesson is that people working together in an organization need to cheer each other on. Of all the things I have taught over the years, the most important is the power of catching people doing things right and accentuating the positive. So often in organizations, the leadership engages in what I call “sea gull management.” Managers are not around until people make a mistake. Then they fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everybody, and fly out. This does not make for a very motivating work environment.

People need to be recognized. They need to be caught doing something right and publicly acknowledged for it. Offering kudos for genuine good work makes people’s spirits soar.

Share the Pain and the Joy

I grew up with a mom who accentuated the positive. She told everybody that I sang before I talked, I danced before I walked, and I smiled before I frowned. Yet the concept really came alive for me later in life, when I had a wonderful opportunity to work with Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking. Larry Hughes, president of William Morrow, called me in 1985 and said, “Ken, would you consider writing a book with Norman Vincent Peale?”

“Is he still alive?” I asked. My mom and dad had gone to his church before I was born.

Larry replied, “Not only is he alive—he’s the most incredible guy you’ll ever want to meet.”

So I went to New York and had wonderful three-hour lunch with Norman and his wife, Ruth, Larry, my agent, Margret McBride, and our editor, Pat Golbitz. The book was The Power of Ethical Management (William Morrow, 1988).

Working with Norman and Ruth Peale sold me forever on the importance of positive thinking. They taught me that people like to be around positive thinkers because they exude positive energy. Norman and Ruth also convinced me that positive thinking is a choice and that choice keeps people from getting down on themselves or others. Positive thinkers always seem to take to the high road and get positive results. I have always tried to apply positive thinking, particularly in our own organization. In fact, when things are going badly, people look to me to turn lemons into lemonade.

For example, in 1992, when the economy was struggling and our company was getting hit hard, our CEO, Tom McKee—my wife’s brother—gave the bad news, reporting that our finances were less than rosy. Everybody was a little down, so I got up and said, “Don’t worry—someday we’re going to own this whole block!” We always look back on that story and laugh because now we do own most of the block.

The tragic events on September 11, 2001, were another serious setback for our business. On that day we had trainers all over the country whose events were canceled. In one month we lost $1.5 million. Because the cancellations were not the trainers’ fault, we felt they should be paid and brought home. But that decision sent us limping into our year-end. If we hoped to stay in the black, we had to cut $350,000 to $400,000 a month in expenses for the next three months.

The quickest way to cut expenses would have been to cut people, but that is not the kind of company we wanted to be. We asked the three “Ethics Check” questions that Norman Vincent Peale and I had developed in The Power of Ethical Management:

1. Is it legal? Of course it was legal to get rid of people if we could not pay them.
2. Is it fair to all involved? We thought, no, it was not fair to throw people out in the street when the country had been attacked and the economy was in bad shape.
3. If you choose to do this, how will it make you feel about yourself? Would you like it published in the local newspaper? Would you like your grandchildren to know? The answers to the last questions were anything but positive. Getting rid of people was not the answer to our financial woes.

Instead, we opened our books, as we normally do, sharing our financial condition with everybody on our staff of over 275 people. We formed task forces to look at how to increase revenues and a task force on how to cut expenses. Everybody pulled together and agreed to take salary cuts, although we decided not to cut salaries of people who were making less than $50,000 a year because it is tough enough living in San Diego. We agreed that if people left, we would not replace them. We stopped matching 401(k) contributions.

In the midst of these tough times I said, “When we pull out of this, we’re all going to Hawaii.”

Our CEO, Tom McKee, just about dropped his teeth. “Tijuana, maybe,” he said, “but not Hawaii.”

Our belt tightening continued for 2002 and 2003. In 2004, things started to turn around, and by November we had accomplished our financial goal for the year. We had budgeted for $38 million in revenue for the year and came in at $44 million at the end of the year. Sure enough, the following February, we took more than 300 people to Hawaii for a three-and-a-half-day celebration. Some of our people had never flown before, and well over half of them had never been to Hawaii. People said they could not sleep at night because their faces hurt from smiling so much.

Positive thinking really works. Negative thinking never has and never will.

A Positive Difference

A couple of years ago, I had a customer service experience that really highlights the difference between a positive work environment and a negative one. I was heading to the airport for a trip that was going to take me to four different cities. As I approached the terminal, I realized that I had forgotten my driver’s license and did not have a passport with me, either. Not having time to go back home to get them and make the flight, I had to be creative.

One of my books has my picture on the cover: Everyone’s a Coach, which I wrote with the legendary football coach Don Shula. When I got to the airport, I ran into the bookstore and, luckily, there was a copy of our book. Fortunately, my first flight was on Southwest Airlines. As I was checking my bag, the porter asked to see my identification.

I said, “I feel bad. I don’t have a driver’s license or a passport. But will this do?” I showed him the cover of the book.

He shouted out, “The man knows Shula! Put him in first class!” Of course, Southwest does not have first class. Everybody by the check-in started to high-five me. I was like a hero.

Herb Kelleher, who founded Southwest, not only wanted to give his customers the lowest possible price, he also wanted to give them the best possible service. He set the organization up in a way that empowered everyone—including the front line baggage check folks—to soar like eagles. He gave them power to make decisions, use their brains, and create raving fans. Kelleher—who recently retired, turning over the reins to his long-time colleague, Colleen Barrett—felt that people could use their brains in interpreting policies. Why do airlines ask for identification? To make sure the person getting on the plane is the person with the name on the ticket. That was an easy call for the Southwest Airlines’ front line person.

The next airline I had to go to before my office could overnight my driver’s license was an airline that is in financial trouble. The ducks were quacking everywhere. The curbside attendant looked at my book and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. You’d better go to the ticket counter. Quack! Quack!” When I showed the book to the woman at the ticket counter, she said, “You’d better talk to my supervisor. Quack! Quack!” I had to talk to four different levels of management before I could board the flight.

In the troubled airline the hierarchy was alive and well. All the energy was moving away from pleasing customers and moving toward serving the hierarchy—following the policies, procedures, rules, and regulations to the letter. That is no way to create positive experiences for customers. It just produces a duck pond.

The secret to positive leadership is to create an inspiring vision that gives people worthwhile work. Then let people use their brains, so they can soar like eagles. Most important, you need to cheer each other on. This not only motivates people, but also puts smiles on customers’ faces—and makes your cash register go ca-ching.

** This article is one of 101 great articles that were published in 101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life. To get complete details on “101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life”, visit

Author's Bio: 

Ken Blanchard is an award-winning speaker with a PhD in educational administration and leadership from Cornell University. He has been a guest on Good Morning America and The Today Show and has been featured in Time, People, U.S. News & World Report, and other popular publications. Blanchard is also cofounder of Lead Like Jesus, a nonprofit ministry dedicated to inspiring and equipping people to walk their faith in business and in life. He and his wife, Margie, live in San Diego.

Ken Blanchard is the chairman and chief spiritual officer of The Ken Blanchard Companies (, a global leader in workplace learning, employee productivity, and leadership and team effectiveness. He has written more than 40 books, including The One Minute Manager, Raving Fans, Gung Ho!, and Whale Done! He was recently inducted into the Amazon Hall of Fame as one of their top 25 best-selling authors of all time. His books have combined sales of more than 18 million copies in more than 25 languages.