Let me tell you about a man named Walter Isenberg.
I’ve known Walter for many years. He and his wife, Christie, are generous donors to the National Leadership Academy, and their daughter Nicole was one of the very first graduates of our program. Walter is one of the most influential business leaders in Denver. He’s President and CEO of Sage Hospitality, which he co-founded back in 1984. Sage is legendary for buying up distressed but historically significant properties. But instead of tearing them down, Sage restores them into gorgeous boutique hotels. Union Station in my hometown of Denver was once a crumbling relic, but Sage helped transform it into the beating heart of the downtown area complete with fine dining and a top-rated hotel.
Walter is constantly being asked to run for governor or mayor, but that’s not what makes him revered in my book. He is humble, thoughtful, and soft-spoken; you basically need to be standing a few inches from him to hear what he’s saying. Turns out that Walter is more of a writer than a speaker anyway, and I recently read something of his that moved me deeply.
On March 18, 2020, Walter made the hardest decision of his life: Sage Hospitality had to furlough 5,700 of its 6,200 employees due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Like the rest of the hospitality industry, his hotels were decimated. I knew a lot of leaders who went through similar ordeals; they were so ashamed they couldn’t look their employees in the eye. Not Walter. After he announced the furloughs, he wrote a love letter to his team. “My heart goes out to all of you, and I can’t thank you enough for the heroic work and leadership each and every one of you has displayed. This is most certainly the saddest week in the history of Sage,” he wrote. “We have furloughed thousands. These are our people, our family. My heart is broken.”
Walter went on to promise they would persevere “because each of us wakes up daily to enrich other people’s lives through servant leadership.” Now here’s the incredibly beautiful part: Walter didn’t just write one letter—he wrote one every single week for two years. He sent copies to his remaining 500 employees as well as the 5,700 who were sent home. Someone collected all of Walter’s letters and had them bound in a beautiful leather book, which I read last week. Walter poured his heart into each letter. He didn’t mince words. He was painfully transparent about the health of the company during the depths of the pandemic. The letters were raw, heartfelt, and honest—leadership at its purest. Throughout them, all he promised was that it would get better. He promised he would one day offer every furloughed employee their job back.
And in the end, of course, we did get through the pandemic. Sage Hospitality is flourishing once again, and Walter followed through on his promise to welcome furloughed workers back to the family.
As I thumbed through Walter’s book, I realized that there’s something genuinely powerful about a letter. My mind flashed back to when I was at boy scout camp for the first time. I was feeling homesick, but on the last day of camp, I got a letter in the mail from my parents. It was simple and short, and they told me how much they loved me and how they couldn’t wait to see me again soon. It’s the only letter I still have from my parents, who got divorced years later. It reminds me that no matter what happens in life, I am loved unconditionally.
When I think about it, letter writing is a trait that many heart-led leaders share. My friend Frank DeAngelis, whom I’ve written about extensively, was the principal of Columbine High School during what was then the worst school shooting in American history. He delayed his retirement until students who had been kindergarteners at the time of the massacre finally graduated from Columbine. I was fortunate enough to attend Frank’s retirement ceremony after that final class had graduated. Hundreds of people were there, each of them clutching a stack of handwritten letters from Frank over the years. Christmas cards, birthday cards, thank-you cards, sympathy cards—everyone from parents to students to secretaries to coaches showed me how Frank’s letters had touched their lives.
Letters of leadership do not even have to be traditional letters. My mentor Ken Blanchard, the wildly successful speaker and author of The One Minute Manager, manages hundreds of employees. Every time I’ve been with Ken at lunch or in the car, he’ll take a moment to record a voice memo for his staff: “Hi, this is Ken. I’m thinking about all of you. Here’s what’s going on with our company.” He’ll go on to detail their wins and losses. The areas of growth and the challenges ahead. In good times and bad, he ends every message with, “I love all of you.” My friend Andy Newland, who runs one of the largest HVAC companies in Colorado, has committed to start recording a weekly video for his 500 employees, reminding them how much he appreciates their hard work.
Communication is easier than ever before, and yet it seems leaders are increasingly disconnected from their followers. With so many folks working from home on a part- or full-time basis, staying in touch is even harder. Emails and text messages and Zoom calls make us more productive, but at a cost of losing a genuine connection with the people we work with. Why not take a page out of Walter Isenberg’s book of letters and write a weekly heartfelt note to your teammates? Or maybe you’re more like Andy Newland or Ken Blanchard, and you prefer to record a message. Writing and recording letters of leadership becomes addicting the more you get the hang of it. And the people that follow you will never forget it. Never.
For years now, every single participant who goes through the National Leadership Academy and the Global Youth Leadership Academy gets a love letter from someone that cares deeply about them. Everyone who attends a Heart-Led Leader Retreat—or any Tommy Spaulding program—gets a love letter. Every employee, every customer, and every client gets a letter.
No matter the medium you choose, tell your team what’s on your mind. Celebrate wins and be truthful about the challenges to come. And most important, tell your team how much you appreciate and love them. They will never forget it. Never.