Oswald Letter

Chick-fil-A founder was embodiment of servant leader philosophy

Chickfilaby Dan Oswald

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the phrase “servant leadership.”

While servant leadership is a concept I’ve heard about many times in the past, I wasn’t sure where it originated, so I did some research and found that the phrase was coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay he first published in 1970. In the essay, Greenleaf says:

The servant-leader is servant first. . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. . . . The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?

On September 8, Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy passed away at age 93. From what I’ve learned about the way Cathy ran his business, I think he’s a great example of a servant leader.

Cathy, who was born into poverty, started the business as a small diner in Atlanta. This year, it became the number one chicken chain in the United States, with more than 1,800 restaurants.

“I had a low image of myself because I was brought up in the deep Depression,” Cathy said in a 2008 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I struggled to get through high school. I didn’t get to go to college. But it made me realize you can do anything if you want to bad enough.”

Cathy eventually would be placed on the list of wealthiest Americans by Forbes magazine. In 2007, he said, “I’ve experienced poverty and plenty and there’s a lesson to be learned when you’re brought up in poverty. I had to create some good work habits and attitude.”

Cathy’s unwavering principles, good work habits, and attitude—which I believe created a servant leadership mentality—helped him start his restaurant in 1946. Those same principles remain intact for the business today. Cathy decided not to open his restaurants on Sundays—even though it’s estimated to cost the company billions of dollars—because he believed his employees deserved a day of rest. He refused to take the company public because he didn’t want that decision to be changed and he wanted to keep a focus on the company’s charitable work, mainly sponsoring foster homes and homes for abused and neglected children. He also launched the WinShape scholarship program at Berry College, mostly given to young employees of his restaurant chain.

And customers rewarded Cathy for those types of choices. Food market analysts say Chik-fil-A scored far above average with its customers when they were asked questions about their “emotional connection” to the restaurant and whether the restaurant “has values that are similar to my own.” He was able to forge a culture at Chik-fil-A that perpetuated the servant leadership mentality way beyond one person—and that’s an incredible accomplishment.

Operating only six days a week, the company had sales of $5 billion in 2013, and the family-owned business has said it has had 46 consecutive years of positive sales growth. And last year, it bested KFC as the top-selling fast-food chicken chain despite having one-third fewer stores than the competitor. And I’m sure if Cathy were here today to tell us, he would say he’s more proud of the lives he touched over the years than he is of running the top franchise. You see, if you first set out to serve others well, the rest will take care of itself.

Truett Cathy’s life is a great example for all of us of how to serve and then lead. And maybe when we do that, we end up with a job that doesn’t feel like work. “Why would I retire from something I enjoy doing?’’ Cathy said at age 86. ‘‘I can hardly wait to get here.’’

7 thoughts on “Chick-fil-A founder was embodiment of servant leader philosophy”

  1. Dan, You could not have picked a better example of the servant leader. I also believe you don’t have to look further than the employees of an organization to feel the effects of a servant leader. From the moment you walk into a Chik-Fil-A restaurant you know something is different. Just search the internet for Chik-Fil-A “random acts of kindness” and multiple accounts of the example that was set by Mr. Catchy are on full display. And making the best darn chicken sandwich doesn’t hurt either!
    Danny Nelms
    The Work Institute

  2. I think that true servant leadership is rare in today’s world and not just in the world of business. It is rare in politics, marriages, families, government, schools, universities, and many other organizations.

    The last generations that understood servant leadership were the WWII and Baby Boomers. The WWII because they were called to serve at a time when they were doing so to serve the higher purpose of their country and fellow man. The Baby Boomers were raised by the WWII generation so they were also raised to believe in something beyond themselves and to speak up, protest, and serve others. I rarely see that same level of servant leadership in today’s culture. People may volunteer for interesting causes and give money but it is not at the same level of servant leadership and is very often to serve the purpose of padding a resume, improving their image to self or others or to meet someone. I used to believe that most of us answered the call to a higher purpose but now I realize it is and outdated idea. All that is necessary is to listen to pundits, political parties and legalistic religions espousing intolerance. Servant leadership is something we should encourage down to the very basic core, the individual in families. Then from there, it could rise up and become a part of our culture. Of course, it would be nice if our corporations, businesses, and leaders modeled that behavior wouldn’t it. I think that is why our culture is so cynical now. Truett Cathy was inspirational in his devotion to others.

  3. Servant leadership comes from long before 1970. The words of Christ in Matthew 23:11 state “But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” It’s a shame Cathy will not be remembered as a Christian entrepreneur but rather as an entrepreneur who just happened to believe the Bible. There is an obvious reason for Cathy’s success that extends far beyond his work ethic and charitable contributions. Great article!

  4. Chick-fil-A does have something. I went there the first time, 3 years ago to meet with my sisters to plan a family get together. We only had snack type food and drinks and were there for a few hours talking and enjoying the planning. There was a hostess, who came by and refilled our cups several times, then came out with an ice cream cone for the four of us, on the house! Now I am hooked on those icecream cones!

    When you say Thank you! They don’t say “No problem”, they say “my pleasure!” Chick-fil-A has a friendly family feel about it. I have been disappointed many Sundays when I want to eat at there and it’s closed, but I certainly understand and admire the fact they are closed for their employees.

  5. Thank you for the article on Truett Cathy and his legacy. It was a thought-provoking account of a truly remarkable man. It would have been even more powerful had you cited the Biblical principles that he modeled his life after, such as Matthew 23:11, where Jesus states, “But He that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” The Word of God is like a knife that cuts between the marrow and the bone, exposing our thoughts and intentions. Only God’s Word has the power to change men’s hearts. Mr. Cathy walked the walk, but let people know why. Then the life lesson is truly complete!

  6. Hi Dan,
    I have been a regular reader of your weekly newsletter. I get it in my office, and read it regularly. It is always light and easy, and yet a good though provoking experience.
    Keep it up Dan, you are doing a great job!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *