Former theme park executive and leadership coach Joel Manby details the principles behind leading a business with love as a verb and source of action during a keynote address at the Conference of...

Former theme park executive and leadership coach Joel Manby details the principles behind leading a business with love as a verb and source of action during a keynote address at the Conference of Automotive Remarketing on March 27.

Photo: Ross Stewart / Stewart Digital Media

Before you can talk about and lead with love, as a servant leader you have to understand what love is not.

Servant leadership is not about being a doormat, or touchy-feely, or weak. It can be tough, direct, and hard-core when rooted in the values that build a more trustful and respectful workplace culture, said leadership expert and veteran corporate executive Joel Manby, the keynote speaker at the Conference of Automotive Remarketing.

While love changes the world and it changes relationships, it can also transform leadership, which is rarely talked about as principles, Manby said. In his March 27 presentation before an audience of vehicle consignors, auctions, dealers, and remarketers, Manby drew on his experience leading in autocratic fear-based cultures and ones that lead with a loving culture centered on employee success.

Companies following the leadership principles rooted in love enjoy higher employee engagement, less turnover, and less absenteeism, based on extensive studies of companies and organizations around the world, Manby said. Profitability on average was 20% higher, he said. “We saw a direct link between leading with love and getting incredible financial results.”

Undercover Results on the Job

For over a decade, Manby was the CEO of Herschend Enterprises, which managed over 20 entertainment properties including brands such as the Harlem Globetrotters, Silver Dollar City, and Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park. He also served as CEO of Sea World, leading it during a troubled and challenging period. Before joining Herschend Enterprises, he spent 20 years in the auto industry, working at Saturn and serving as CEO of Saab USA during Saab’s domestic turnaround. He also led an Amazon start-up that introduced car sales to the internet.

For an episode of CBS' "Undercover Boss" Season 1 that aired on March 28, 2010, Manby toured some of the various amusement parks in disguise and found smiling employees that gave 110% for their jobs, according to Entertainment Weekly. Manby has detailed his business lessons and leadership principles in Love Works: Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders, both his session theme and title of his 2020 book.

A Humble, Hard Start

A native of Battle Creek, Michigan, Manby grew up in a poor family. His father owned and operated a local Oliver farm machinery dealership, which lost out to the growing John Deere market share in the 1960s. Manby underscored that he was not born into the wealthy corporate world.

“During about a seven-year period, my dad was trying to make this dealership work. My mom told me at his death that he brought home about $50 a week for those seven years. That's about $2,500 a year. And all the fights in our home and the tension in our home was about money. My mom made it clear at a very young age that there is no money for college; you’re going to do it on your own. I didn't enter the workforce thinking love was the answer to business.”

Manby's earlier career period spanned two automotive brands owned by General Motors that, while successful, were sold off during the GM bankruptcy during the Great Recession. “What I generally saw, especially at General Motors, was a core leadership that was autocratic and intimidating,” Manby said. "A lot of men were smoking cigars, and drinking way too much Scotch during the day, and they would get really angry in meetings if you don't hit your numbers. You were gone. And there was very little discussion about people's development and culture. Fear does not drive innovation."

Keynoter Joel Manby shows an image from his childhood that taught him lessons about success, failure, and hard work. - Photo: Ross Stewart / Stewart Digital Media

Keynoter Joel Manby shows an image from his childhood that taught him lessons about success, failure, and hard work.

Photo: Ross Stewart / Stewart Digital Media

Learning to Lead with Heart

From there, Manby took the CEO role at Herschend Enterprises where during his 15 years with the company, he learned about and developed a set of leadership principles based on love. His experiences led to his appearance on "Undercover Boss," which mentioned the company’s foundation that helped employees in need. The episode was viewed by 25 million people. “We had so many emails from customers and people watching the show that our servers shut down at Herschend,” he said.

“There were millions of people saying we have a leadership crisis, we should expect more from our leaders, and they should care about us as well as the numbers. And it was because of that response that I decided to write Love Works.

“And it really does work. From a number standpoint, it gets great results. It's not the reason to do it, but it's what happens. At Herschend, our return on investment and our margins were as good as anybody's in the industry, including Disney and Universal, which are much bigger companies.”

Manby said his approach to love in business evolved from his personal Christian faith that stems from the teachings of Jesus Christ. “For me, coming to work every day leading this way was a connection to my belief system. Now, I know all of you share different belief systems. Regardless of how you find spirituality or meaning, love is a powerful force that changes you for the better. I know it changed me, and it dramatically changed my life. It will change your organization for the better.”

In defining the four types of love – eros, brotherly, storge, and agape – Manby focused on the agape, but considering such love as a verb and a behavior.

“It's how you treat people and has nothing to do with how you feel about them. And you can treat people regardless of how you feel about them because we all work with people we don't care for.” Manby paraphrases love into seven words -- patient, kind, trusting, unselfish, truthful, forgiving, dedicated -- based on the familiar Bible passage from 1 Corinthians 13.

Manby set up those words as “be goals” for leaders, measuring effects on company culture, and not just “do goals,” based on quantifiable business results.

5 Points to Managing Conflict

For love to take hold in a workplace, it has to be applied practically day to day, said Manby, outlining five key points:

  1. Never chew out employees in public. Keep it private and protect their dignity. For praise, give it in public and make it authentic.
  2. Be stern but avoid malice. Don’t attack a subordinate or colleague as a human being; target their behavior instead.
  3. Be specific. Don’t just say, “You screwed up,” state precisely what the person did wrong.
  4. If you're admonishing someone, or you have a big problem with them, it's important to put them back in the game. Reinforce the person and get them back on their horse.
  5. Keep a short memory. Get to the point, communicate the solution, and then don’t bring up the episode again. Most of the time, the offender improves and gets better. But if you don’t let go, the incident will fester among both parties, and the employee will either leave or end up fired.

“It is so critical just to have this patient conversation,” Manby said. “So if you want to change the world, be patient and manage conflict.”

Practicing Genuine Kindness

Manby was quick to point out that kindness is not about being nice all the time; it’s more about patience matched with encouragement. “How many of you have had too much encouragement in your life?” Manby asked the audience. No one raised their hand. “We tend to focus on what's wrong, and what needs to be fixed, not on what's right.”

He summed up kind practices with three actions:

  1. Follow the encouragement ratio: “The scientific research says if you don't receive three positives or accolades to every negative, you lose your competence and your mojo. “Humans need encouragement. And yet we don't tend to do it. In every personnel survey we ever did, getting positive feedback from your boss was one of the lowest-rated items, yet it’s free.”
  2. Write up your employees, but in a handwritten note of encouragement, not a disciplinary document. Manby cited the practice of Jack Herschend, one of the family owners of Herschend Entertainment, for taking the time to write personal notes to subordinates. They break through the clutter of the constant stream of emails, texts, and messages. “Take the time to do it.”
  3. Start your day quietly reviewing what went right the day before. Then write just three quick brief thank-you notes to three different people, as Manby’s boss did. “I promise you it'll change your leadership trajectory because it's not just about the employee getting that letter; it’s what it does for you and your psyche because you start the day with something positive. Your whole attitude will change for the day.”

The Core Pillars of Truth

Without truth, all the other virtues fall apart, Manby said. Truth has two parts: Seek it and tell it.

In the last five years spanning COVID, many employees quit their jobs because they didn’t feel safe giving negative feedback or telling the truth, Manby said. Seeking truth is the environment you should create in an organization.

To free up truth-telling, listen to everyone and speak last. If you disagree, don’t shoot the messenger. “In the culture of America, we tend as leaders to think we have to go in with the answers,” Manby said. “And we want to talk first to make sure people know where we're coming from. But if you want the truth from those who are probably closer to the action than you are, ask them first to give their opinions. And if you start with the lowest level, you're going to hear the truth because they don't know where their boss stands. It's a nice change of pace, to create an environment where you want the truth."

Listen to understand. Don’t listen while preparing to respond to the other person that they are wrong. Absorb what others are saying. Then, respond by stating why you support your point of view, and address each of the other person’s negative points or reasons for disagreement. Don’t bulldoze; make others feel heard and respect their opinions.

“The other part of truth is telling it to people. What I saw in General Motors culture, and in most leaders I've mentored and led over the years, their worst trait is they don't have those ongoing, difficult conversations to improve people.” Manby advised that in taking someone from good to great, write three words – same, less, and more – in outlining what an employee or manager is doing right, what negative practices they should do less of, and then return to listing their positive traits and performance to encourage more of it.

Manby told the audience to ask themselves three questions: With whom do I need to be patient? Who do I need to encourage? And with whom do I need to be truthful? Writing those names down and following through is the way to be a loving and caring leader.

Applying Love in Today's Troubled Culture

Manby later added a few more observations based on moderator and audience questions:

  • If capitalism doesn’t embrace more positive leadership from the principles surrounding love, then it will be at risk. Younger generations tend to view socialism more positively while distrusting capitalism, he said. “I think the reason it gets a bad rap is we don't have enough leaders who lead this way. And if we had more generous leaders who treat their people well, I think capitalism would remain the only system proven to work over thousands of years. Otherwise, I'm afraid that capitalism is in trouble.”
  • Working in toxic or hostile environments is not worth the stress, health effects, and bad morale, even if it carries a prestigious title and good pay.
  • Our No. 1 purpose in life is to love other people. Even if you are not loved back, do it anyway, Manby said. It’s all about the “be” goals informing the “do” goals. Our intent isn’t to get a reaction or be a people pleaser. If you don’t forgive, it will just hurt you and grind your soul. “It's like drinking poison and expecting somebody else to die. We must let it go. People are just themselves.”
  • After working for two “evil” difficult CEOs, Manby realized you sometimes have to let bad actions go and not compromise who you are, despite such an approach being hard to follow. Manby's forbearance paid off: Each of those CEOs was gone in less than six months.  


About the author
Martin Romjue

Martin Romjue

Managing Editor of Fleet Group, Charged Fleet Editor, Vehicle Remarketing Editor

Martin Romjue is the managing editor of the Fleet Trucking & Transportation Group, where he is also editor of Charged Fleet and Vehicle Remarketing digital brands. He previously worked as lead editor of Bobit-owned Luxury, Coach & Transportation (LCT) Magazine and from 2008-2020.

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