Oswald Letter

Politics and religion aside, Truett Cathy still great example of servant leader

Leadership3by Dan Oswald

I recently wrote about servant leadership, mentioning that it has long been a concept that intrigues me. I used as an example—in part because of his recent passing—Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A. My choice for an example wasn’t universally embraced by those who read the entry. Many of the negative comments I received about the article referenced either Cathy’s politics or his religious beliefs. I had written about neither.

What I did write about is what it takes to be a servant leader—the desire to serve others, which provides one with a position where he can also lead them. I believe Cathy was such a person, and if you talk to the people who worked for him or his customers, most would say the same thing. The entire culture of the restaurant he founded is based on service to others. It makes sense because Chick-fil-A is in a service business, but we all know that doesn’t necessarily result in good service. If you’ve ever eaten at a Chick-fil-A, you might know that every employee is trained to respond to customer requests with “My pleasure”—meaning, “It is my pleasure to serve you.”

I get it. Not everyone agrees with Cathy’s political or religious beliefs. You don’t have to. That’s the beauty of this great country we live in. You have the freedom of speech. You have the freedom of religion. And you have many other freedoms all guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. And so did Cathy.

I was just pointing to the fact that Cathy possessed the characteristics that make up a servant leader. He lived a life that embodied his belief that “[n]early every moment of every day we have the opportunity to give something to someone else—our time, our love, our resources. I have always found more joy in giving when I did not expect anything in return.”

If you consider the charities the company has supported, you’ll see that Cathy believed in giving back and serving the greater good of the community. His charitable activities also demonstrated his willingness to serve others. Through its Leadership Scholarship Program, the Chick-fil-A chain has given more than $32 million in $1,000 scholarships to restaurant employees. And the company will give more than $1.75 million in scholarships to its employees this year. He also helped establish 13 foster care homes and camps that have served more than 18,000 campers.

What are the traits of a servant leader?

  1. Possesses humility—desires to put others first;
  2. Displays empathy—really understands and cares about others;
  3. Develops others—makes an investment in the betterment of other peoples’ lives;
  4. Leads by example—says “Let’s go!” not “You go”; and
  5. Persuades instead of dictates—builds followership by convincing others, not ordering them.

If you study Cathy’s life and work, you’ll discover he embodied those principles. Say what you like about his religious beliefs or his politics, but you can’t argue with his business success. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “A man wrapped up in himself makes a small bundle.” That wasn’t the case with Cathy. He made a very large bundle. And he made sure others benefitted from his success—both those who helped him create the wealth and others in need. What people do to help others speaks to their heart, and by all accounts, Cathy had a big heart.

It is when we stop doing our best work that our enthusiasm for the job wanes. We must motivate ourselves to do our very best, and by our example lead others to do their best as well.

—Truett Cathy