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.’’