Jim Blanchard on Changing the Leadership Culture

Lucy Adams

Thursday, March 12th, 2015

When Jim Blanchard, Chairman, Board of Advisors, Jordan-Blanchard Capital LLC and retired Chairman & CEO, Synovus Financial Corp., retired from Synovus, his agenda didn’t fill with days dedicated to front-porch sitting. He desired to perpetuate and expand the influence of what he calls “servant leadership.” He says, “I wanted to continue in some way with the leadership initiatives and culture that we had developed at Synovus.” He proposed the concept of a leadership forum to his successor, who, understanding the value, eagerly agreed to sponsor the program.

That was 10 years ago. The 10th annual Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum will roll out August 24-25, 2015. “Initially, my goal was to make sure that it was available to the companies that I was responsible for before I retired.  I wanted to make sure our leaders at Synovus and TSYS were continuously exposed to this kind of person we bring in.  We wanted to expose them to the smartest, most successful leaders in the world,” says Blanchard. The first forum was by invitation only to about 300 people from Synovus, TSYS and the Columbus business community. Today the forum is open to the public – first come, first served – and attracts a sold-out auditorium of 1200 participants.

The forum reaches an audience beyond the business community and beyond Columbus. Educators, active military personnel and representatives from government at all levels attend the event. Columbus, of course, is well-represented, but participants also travel to the Forum from surrounding communities, large cities like Atlanta and Birmingham, and other states in the region. “The people who come to this, says Blanchard, “are the people who are reading books on leadership. They’re studying the histories of leaders. They’re reading biographies. They’re people who want to become better leaders and are seeking out how to do that.” Blanchard estimates that approximately one third to one half of attendees have been to all nine of the past forums.

At a basic level, Blanchard defines a leader as someone who influences others. By that description, he notes, every person from the housewife to the CEO is essentially a leader. “So many people think leadership is a position and not an influence,” he says.  He and The Leadership Institute at Columbus State University’s Cunningham Center, which partners to put on this event, endeavor to change the leadership culture from one of self-serving leadership to one of servant leadership. Referring to Micah 6:8, Blanchard describes a servant leader as one who acts justly, loves mercy and walks humbly. “The concept of justice, mercy and humility is a great definition of an effective, competent leader who makes a difference,” he says.

A small committee supported by the Cunningham Center works year round to engage speakers whose lives and actions and successes demonstrate this unique set of selfless leadership qualities. Many Forum presenters do not ask an appearance fee. The cost of those who do is offset by ticket prices and Forum sponsors. Either way, the overall speaker group for any forum arises from diverse backgrounds, vocations, political spheres and religious affiliations. The one common thread is their dedication to servant leadership. Past speakers have included Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, Inc.; Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, Facebook; James Carville and Mary Matalin, political consultants; Gabrielle Giffords, former Arizona congresswoman; Alan Mulally, former CEO of Ford plus other CEOs and presidents of top U.S. corporations, founders of ministries to America’s marginalized, pastors and military officers.

“Our Forum agenda this year is the greatest collection of speakers and leaders that I’ve ever seen anywhere,” says Blanchard. Former President and First Lady, George W. and Laura Bush, along with their daughters, Barbara Bush, CEO and co-founder of Global Health Corps, and Jenna Bush Hager, NBC Today Show Correspondent, will headline the 10th annual Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum. Several additional big thinkers will join the Bush family in sharing their leadership strategies, successes and failures and the take-away lessons they’ve learned: General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of U.S. and International forces in Afghanistan; Scott Harrison, founder of Charity Water; leadership icons John Maxwell, Ken Blanchard, and Patrick Lencioni; Tom Mullins, pastor, former coach and author; James J. Dunne, III, Senior Managing Principal, Sandler O’Neill & Partners, L.P.; Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author. The relatively intimate setting of the Columbus Georgia Convention and Trade Center will backdrop the presentations.

Reviewing the previous nine years of the Forum and anticipating the coming milestone, Blanchard remarks, “The idea was that the Forum would be a major impetus to increase the leadership capacity of our community and beyond and that over time it would build a leadership culture that would be stronger and wider and deeper and broader. That, I think, is exactly what has happened.”