Whether you’ve led for years or you’re new to the role, being a leader is a responsibility that doesn’t come with instructions. Many leadership books focus strictly on tips for the business world. Others offer analysis but lack strategy, while most are confounding and complicated. To be a leader in today’s world, whether in your personal or professional life, you need a simple philosophy, one with proven results.

In Lead Well, leadership consultant and serial entrepreneur, Ken Falke, introduces you to the 10 principles you need to become an impactful leader. With tactics that are easy to understand, and easier to implement, this book is packed with Ken’s insight for more than four decades in business, nonprofit and military leadership. You will learn how to be the best version of yourself before inspiring others to contribute ideas and accomplish goals. Good leaders know that character and morals matter as much as profit and loss, Lead Well is your practical guide for understanding the leader within and becoming the person you need and want to be.

This is the Author Hour podcast. I am your host, Benji Block. Today we are excited to be joined by Ken Falke. He just came out with a new book. It’s called Lead Well: Ten Steps to Successful and Sustainable Leadership. Ken, we’re so excited to get to speak with you here on Author Hour today.

Ken Falke: Thanks, Benji. I look forward to talking to you.

Benji Block: Absolutely. Ken, I’d love for our listeners to just get some of the context, your background, and what led to the writing and releasing of this book.

Ken Falke:  Well, thank you for that. I spent 21 years in the navy. I was a bomb disposal expert. I left the navy and started a company that ended up being fairly successful. We were able to grow the company and sell it. I stayed with the company after we sold it for a couple of years and continued to run it as a CEO, and then I left and went on for my second venture, started a second company. And that company I sold my shares to one of my business partners when my daughter had our first grandchild, so I could just kind of take a little bit of a break. My real passion though is [that] I run a retreat in a place called Boulder Crest Foundation. It launched two retreat centers, one here in Bluemont, Virginia where I live, and another one in Sonoita Arizona, Southern Arizona. 

These retreats are designed to help military and first responder personnel who are suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder to heal from those wounds. That’s really my passion [and] what I do today. The work we do at Boulder Crest— I actually wrote my first book, co-authored my first book with my business partner Josh Goldberg, and it’s called Struggle Well: Thriving in the Aftermath of Trauma. The work we do at Boulder Crest is based on the science of something called post-traumatic growth. That’s really what Struggle Well was all about. Really, the book came out three years ago and I’ve just been watching just the nation in general, with this Covid disaster and it just seems like we are in a funk. I feel like we’re in a funk right now as a country. I just thought, there’s a lot of books out there on leadership, but some of them are not really accessible, there is no easy way to understand. And leadership, in general terms, isn’t easy but what I wanted to do was just come out with a small book— it’s only a hundred and a few pages— and just talk about what I’ve learned over the last 60 years of my life and how leaders can just do a better job by doing what they say they should do.

Character, Spirituality, Service

Benji Block: Absolutely. I love that and I’m glad we’re going to get to jump into some of the content of the book. Let me ask you this. When you are writing and working on this project, who is coming to mind? Like whom is the ideal reader that you are writing this for?

Ken Falke: We talked a lot about that during the writing and really what we thought, or what I feel strongly about, is that it’s really for leaders who are kind of in this funk, in this place where they are looking for something to do to energize the people. They say that 70% of Americans hate their jobs. What that means, I think, Benji, is people don’t like their bosses. And that’s what we are trying to do; really give people an element of what they can do to become a better leader, [for] people who are leaders already, how to become better at that and then people in this kind of mid-management range where they’re striving to be a leader and be the best that they can be. That’s what we really thought the two major audiences of the book would be.

Benji Block: Well, I can say I like my job and it’s because of people like you. Getting to chat with those that are trying to make the world a better place and equip leaders to be better. I absolutely love that. So, let’s dive into some of the content here. You give 10 steps as the title alludes to. We’ll just start right with step one, which is this idea of leading yourself first. Clearly, self-leadership is a big deal but let me ask you this, when it comes to your personal self-leadership do you have some red flags or triggers that you realize, “Woah, I’m not leading myself well right now”? 

Ken Falke:  Yeah, I think the wellness model that we use at Boulder Crest is based on four areas of wellness; in mind, body, spirituality— which we define in a very non-religious sense, which I will talk about in a second— and financial wellness.

Spirituality, we kind of define as our character, which I think is really what leadership is about, is being a role model. Our relationships to other people, can we maintain healthy relationships? And thirdly is service to other people. What are we doing for others? 

I always tell people, just in a real simple way, if you could, measure yourself on a scale of one to five in those four areas and then always be working to improve in those areas. That’s really what I do. If I start feeling like I’m putting on some weight or my pants are getting a little tight, walk a little more or go to the gym a little more, eat a little bit less. If I feel like I’m not sleeping well, then I’ll do something. Maybe some more meditation or reading before I go to bed. Something to help me sleep well.

Financially, I’m kind of fortunate and blessed. I sold this company and that hasn’t been a big problem of mine, but it is for a lot of people in America. Then, spirituality, to really check myself on, “Am I doing what I said I am going to do?” which is kind of my character. Then, I might be doing something for somebody else and really my whole life has become that. I feel like every day I get up and I’m serving others.

So, there’s a couple areas where I really watch and that’s my mind and my body, especially as I’m getting older now. But yeah, those are the things we do when we look in the mirror, is to try to really analyze ourselves around those four elements of wellness.

Benji Block: Yeah, I was fascinated because you talk about the importance of spirituality and again, like you said, not defining that in a religious sense. But I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how you see spirituality really playing itself out in every area of your life as you guys define spirituality.

Ken Falke: Well first and foremost, I think the character— Like I said, these three elements and the first one being character. I mean, I’m a grandfather now, I’m a father, I’m a CEO of an organization. And people look up to me and I have to do what I said I’m going to do. That is, to me, really what it’s all about. Nobody likes working for a leader who is kind of, “Do as I say not as I do.” It’s not congruent and that’s really what I believe, that this congruency is when our thoughts and our feelings and our actions are all positively aligned with what we’re doing, exactly what we’re thinking or what we expect that others would do to follow us. 

The second element of spirituality is this relationship. I believe that humans thrive on relationships with others and, whether they are good or bad, that’s kind of what leads us. And you become the average of the three to five people you spend the most time with. So, I make sure that I’m surrounded with good people. If you’re not, if you’re with toxic people or with people that bring you down, nothing good comes out of that.

And then thirdly is, like I said, service to others. And it doesn’t have to be to the extent of what I do. I mean, I run a non-profit that helps people, it’s a human services organization, but people can do small things, small acts of kindness by going and helping stock the shelves at a food bank or help feed the homeless at these food shelters. There’s just— no matter where you live and what community you live in in this country, somebody needs help, and to get outside of your comfort zone and help others is just so important.

Benji Block:  Absolutely. And that is a core characteristic of a leader, seeing a hole, right? And being willing to fill it, and step in and be of service. So, absolutely with you there. 

I find myself and many others have a hard time when it comes to painting a clear vision of the future we want, and you tackle that topic. What’s involved in developing what you call is “a living vision?”

Ken Falke: Yeah, well I always tell people that it’s— if you think of life and what other people are wanting— people want to know where they are going. And nobody likes to go to work and just get behind the computer and do the same thing every day over and over again. They want to understand that there’s a purpose. There’s a saying that people really want two things in life; the opportunity to contribute and the opportunity to grow. And we provide that by providing the vision and clarity on where people are going. So that’s really what I focus on, making sure that we establish a vision for every organization that I lead and that we, in fact, communicate that. We communicate it frequently so that people don’t forget where the organization’s going, what our vision is, where we want to be when we grow up, if you will. And that’s really what communicating a clear vision is all about to me. 


Benji Block: They want to be able to contribute and grow. I love that. 

When it comes to setting goals, are there any kind of best practices? Things that you keep in mind as you think of setting a goal? Maybe it’s for an organization or at a personal level, you’re going, “Okay, this is a good goal and a good way to set a goal.”

Ken Falke:  Yeah well, I start, if we go back to the first element of leadership which is leading yourself first, you think about that wellness triangle; mind, body, spirit, and finances. And you measure yourself on a simple scale of one to five, one being low, five being high. How can you set goals? So, if you know that your body needs some work, how can I set a goal to make it a little bit better? How do I work on that goal? 

When we teach goal setting, and we use it at my company, we use the SMART goal process which is setting a very specific goal of what you want to achieve, making sure it is measurable. I want to lose 10 pounds. That 10 pounds is something that I can measure as I’m getting on the scale every day or every week. They’re achievable, right? It’s easier to lose 10 pounds than it is a 100 but maybe we lose— if we need to lose 100, maybe we lose 10 pounds at a time and those goals are in smaller chunks. 

Because one thing we know about successful people is they tend to set lots and lots of short-term goals and not look way out into the future. Because it’s just hard. Nobody’s got a crystal ball; nobody knows what’s going to happen a year or two, three, four from now. But we can kind of control what happens in the week, in the month and that’s really why I love the short-term goals. 

The R in SMART goal is realistic, and the T is timely, so if I want to lose 10 pounds in the next three months, then how do I measure that along the way. So, that’s kind of the process we use when we are setting goals to really use the SMART process, and there’s a lot of data on the internet about that for somebody who wants to look it up.

Benji Block: Yes, SMART is such a great resource as a starting place for making sure goals are able to be attained over time. 

You touched on this a little bit, but I would like to drill down a little bit more. When it comes to, let’s say you see a gap in a certain area of your life and there’s an ultimate vision of where you want to end up, right? Because we want to set some big long-term vision, some long-term goals for ourselves that may be, a couple of years out or so. 

What does it look like to then work that back to make sure you take that, maybe a few weeks at a time, a month at a time and just revisit those small bite-sized chunks? Is that what you would recommend?

Ken Falke: Yeah, absolutely. In the military, we call that backward planning. When you kind of have this date of where you want to be somewhere, let’s say, and then you just go backwards from that and set up all the steps that you need to get there. And that’s really why I love this SMART process because it makes it so realistic, and you can set the times around it and really bite off small chunks as you are making that and your ultimate goals. 

Benji Block: Now, I find two areas that you have touched on, health and then money, are two areas where people feel like they are so far away from where they want to ultimately be. So, they don’t know how they can do that backward planning and so, if you’re listening and you’re kind of— or maybe it’s one of those areas or one that we weren’t able to identify, but if there’s a long way to go, that backward planning is a huge asset. 

Ken Falke: Absolutely. 

Benji Block:  Love for you to look into that more.

Okay, here’s one that I am excited to talk with you about. One of these steps that you give is kindness. And I was going to tell you this, when I think of the military, when I think of the navy, I think of honor, integrity, I think of grit, intensity. But if I was creating, maybe a list of 10 characteristics, I don’t know that kindness would have necessarily been on that list. But you make a point to make this one of your steps. So, talk about why you see this is such a need for successful and sustainable leadership.

Ken Falke: Well, I think, I have never met anybody that likes to be yelled at. In the military we do, and we have an interesting indoctrination in the military. Most services call it basic training or boot camp, and there’s an element of creating the soldier that we want to be properly disciplined and understand the processes and how to keep the people on this— keep himself and herself alive— and the people on the left and the right alive. So, we do that in basic training and a lot of people see it in movies on the military. People yell and scream and then that’s just the way it is, and it’s fun if you put your laughter hat on. 

But at the end of the day, nobody likes to be screamed at, and I think that’s really what’s so frustrating to me. When you work with leaders who just don’t have an ounce of kindness in them. You see it all around. There are memes on Facebook about mean people and then we’ve all, in some form or fashion, witnessed it, and really, I just think that people want to be around kindness, and it’s not hard. Even in the military, it is not hard. Then the best leaders in the military, kindness kind of falls into your emotional intelligence and what understanding, being self-aware and have an empathy and those types of things. 

And really those are skills that often take a long time and a lot of experience with people. People are complicated and, like I say in the book, leadership’s a verb. You just can’t sit back and, just because you’ve got a title, consider yourself a leader. I define leadership as helping people get to a place that they couldn’t get to on their own. That’s leadership; it’s mentorship, it’s all these things that require action. And people want to be around people that are kind, and I don’t think that there’s any secret to that. 

Creating A Culture of Loyalty

Benji Block: Are there things that you think get lumped in with kindness sometimes that you’re not talking about actually, when we’re talking about kindness? Because I think you give a great definition of what kindness is, and kind of what it isn’t, right?

Ken Falke: Yeah, I mean I think at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean that people get away with everything. I think accountability is incredibly important. It’s one of my 10 elements of leadership. But at the end of the day, when you are kind, people want to be accountable, that’s what I mean. They want to contribute, and they want to grow, and they want to understand how to do that properly and there’s more to this than just the guy on the floor smiling. It’s just doing what you say, and I always say, “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.” I think when you are that honest, that honesty comes across as kindness.

Benji Block: When you look over this list, maybe as you were working on the book, was there one of the steps that really stood out to you as an area that you’ve had to work hard at? Obviously, we’re trying to be the best leader we can be, we’re probably having seasons where all of these maybe stick out to us, and we see a level of improvement that’s necessary, but was there one that was particularly hard in your leadership journey as you grew?

Ken Falke: I think listening is probably the one area that I have grown the most as a leader. I mean, I’m not perfect by any means. I have a long way to go, but I work every day to try to make these 10 things better in my life. But, listening, we’re just not good at. Humans, or I’ll say Americans for sure, aren’t good at it. I always tell people listening is the best gift you can give somebody and when you listen— if you don’t listen it’s hard to really make good decisions and that’s really what is so important, to really understand what people are saying before you make decisions that are going to impact not only the person that’s talking to you, but the people around you. That’s probably the thing that I think still, even at this stage of my life, I have to work on a lot.

Benji Block: What sparked that kind of growth or that awareness? That this is an area I have got to get better in?

Ken Falke:  I think I was telling a friend the other day, next time you talk to somebody watch their lips and their lips are already moving. They have contemplated the answer to your question, or they’ve figured out how to give you advice around something, but I think it was just that. Just being in conversations with people and sitting back and just watching how people talk over each other how there’s not really an understanding before they open their mouth and say something, and how quick people are to provide advice. People that don’t even have the experience of what they’re saying.

I mean nothing’s worse than going to a financial adviser and asking them for help to find out that that individual is bankrupt. I mean, there are so many people in this world that are just so quick to give advice without understanding the whole situation and, that’s what I really believe is listening comes kind of with experience and once you can listen— well, it’s just, like I said— it’s the best gift you give somebody.

Benji Block: Well, let’s touch on a couple more of these steps before we start to conclude our conversation.

One of the ones I’d like to highlight is this idea of creating a culture of loyalty. I think loyalty is vital, but it can be a bit of a mystery as to how to gain momentum in that arena and honestly, in this season of post-, well, we’re not really fully post-COVID, but as more are working remotely and all that, it can be hard to know how to grow some measure of loyalty in your organization. 

So, let’s say someone was listening and they’re going, “Man, I want to assess loyalty in my organization. How do I begin to foster that?” What would maybe be some of your suggestions of where to start?

Ken Falke: Well, I think a couple of things. One is the grass is rarely greener on the other side. I think everybody needs to understand that as you grow in your career, to look for or get into a job of what you do. Now whether you’re, let’s say, Microsoft or SAP, or one of the big software companies, at the end of the day, probably, if you’re a programmer, you’re probably doing the same type of work in each place. 

So, what is going to create loyalty? I always tell people it is a two-way street. The people that you work for have to be loyal to you, and you have to be loyal to them. But I will give you an example. 

My dad, who’s probably been my biggest mentor and [who] I dedicate this book to— he’s passed away now— but my dad sat on the board of many small community banks in his lifetime and community banks, many of them grow and sell to larger banks, and that’s kind of what my dad was interested in, was helping these banks grow and sell them off to bigger banks. He did that successfully several times, and when I started my first company, my dad had introduced me to a banker. My dad said, “Be careful because bankers aren’t always with the banks a long time. They’re not very loyal, they’ll jump from this bank to that bank for an extra thousand dollars a year”, or whatever the salary is and, “They’ll steal the people and they’re lenders” and all these types of things.

Anyway, I’m with this young banker, his name is Nate— though I won’t say his last name but who we’re still very close to— working at the bank that my company’s banking with, and I was having lunch with him one day. As my company was growing, and we needed more blind to credit more credit cards and all the things you need as you’re growing a company, I said to Nate, because he— Nate had back-filled this guy who had left the bank and went over to another bank— and I said, “You know, Nate, stick it out.” I said, “Banking is banking at the end of the day. Be loyal, find the right people in this company.” 

Anyway, today Nate is the president of the bank. 13 years and he’s a division president, he’s not the CEO. This is a fairly large bank at this point. But Nate’s the division president for a very large region of the United States, and that loyalty and that understanding really have been great to watch for me. 

And listen, I get it too. I mean, there’s a lot of people who just get into these places and they get intrigued by the extra couple of thousand dollars a year that they get offered to move. And money is important. Like I said from the beginning, this is a country that requires you to have money to live. And I understand it. But at the end of the day, I think when you can really get into a groove with a company with people around you and your loyalty and their loyalty is symbiotic of the long-term success of that relationship is going to outweigh anything you do by jumping from, in a navy term, jumping from ship to ship. 

Courage Builds Confidence

Benji Block: Is there anything leaders can do to help? Like you said, it is a two-way street, so how can we foster that for those that are employees under us? 

Ken Falke: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think you have to recognize the people that work for you. You have to, the thing we talked about earlier; be kind, listening to them, providing the pay raises that they deserve, providing the positions. There are so many companies that are looking for a new boss and they go outside and hire somebody from the outside when all these great people are inside that could do the job. There are a lot of mistakes that are made in corporate America. And those are the things that we have to look at. To look at the people who have been loyal to us and what we can do to make sure that they’re improving and growing in the company. 

Benji Block: I want to end on step number 9, which is leading with courage. And I will just peek behind the curtain in a sense, I guess.

But a couple of years back I did a lot of research, delivered talks on courage, and so I loved reading this chapter. I used to say this all the time, I would say “Courage today, boldness tomorrow, confidence down the road.” And you touch exactly on this idea that courage is something that everyone needs. It’s a characteristic that separates good leaders from great leaders, but it’s one of the hardest skills to teach because it requires experience, and it requires failure. And once you have those experiences, courage over time, I think, does create boldness and confidence. But how do we build that and instill that in people? 

Maybe just encourage leaders who are in that place where maybe they’ve just had a failure, or they’re in a spot where they need some courage. What would you say to someone that is in that space? 

Ken Falke: Well, I was a bomb disposal specialist in the navy, and you mentioned the navy’s core values. The navy’s core values are honor, courage, and commitment. And we try to instill that from day one into our sailors, that courage is facing a fear. Understanding the risk and facing the fear and getting on with the task and— whether it’s fighting a fire on the ship or defusing a bomb, or if you’re in navy SEAL and jumping out of an airplane. I mean, whatever those risks are, but to really understand that. And I think we’ve done a much better job in this country of really understanding risk management and creating protocols on how to clearly look at risk. 

But I think, at the end of the day, it’s all about really being able to manage that, and having the courage to stand at the door and say “Okay, here’s the risk. I understand what’s going to happen if it doesn’t go well, maybe the second and third-order effects of what may happen if it doesn’t go well.” Or even if it does go well. Sometimes things go very well but then the second or third order effect of that may not be a good outcome. And to try to understand all of that before you jump. 

One of the analogies I give in the book is this whole concept of jumping into the water. When I was a Boy Scout, when I was a young kid, we were playing a game called named sharks and minnows in a creek. And one of the scouts dove in the creek without looking and hit a rock and broke his neck and killed him. And that’s something that never left me in my 60 years of life today. 

And that’s an analogy that I give in the book. It’s okay to jump and dive in the water if you know the depth. But you’ve got to understand all of that, and that’s really to me what courage is. And I think as you said, courage builds confidence. And the more confidence you get, the more experience you get as a leader, the more courageous you become. When you’re young and you don’t have that experience you don’t maybe have that real level of understanding of risk, it’s very dangerous. That’s one of the things you see, and it’s challenging for a lot to really build courage. It’s a very challenging topic. 

Benji Block: Yeah, it’s like every person has to go on that journey and we can do the best we can to try and listen to those that have gone before us, but then ultimately we are going to be faced with situations where, especially in leadership, you just have to choose courage and do the most risk management you can, but ultimately you’re going to have to take a step. So, it’s hard to balance sometimes, but it’s good and I love the content in that chapter. Really the whole book.

Congratulations on this book. The book again is called Lead Well: Ten Steps to Successful and Sustainable Leadership. Can you just take a little bit here as we close, talk about Boulder Crest Foundation and then also ways that people can connect with you further, maybe online or ways that you can encourage people to reach out. 

Ken Falke: Yeah. I appreciate that. As I mentioned, Boulder Crest Foundation is an organization that helps men and women, mostly military and first responder personnel with post-traumatic stress. We’re a privately funded organization headquartered in Bluemont, Virginia, about an hour west of Washington DC and that’s kind of my full-time job. I am pretty accessible on most social media, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and my email address is simply [email protected]. The name of our first book, strugglewell.com. 

Thank you for that opportunity to share. 

Benji Block: Absolutely. It has been such an honor to have you here on Author Hour and best of luck as this book gets out into the world. I know it’s going to be a great resource for so many. 

Thanks, Ken, for being on the show.