HR Management & Compliance

Chick-fil-A Founder—Embodiment of Servant Leadership

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?

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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 6 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.’’

10 thoughts on “Chick-fil-A Founder—Embodiment of Servant Leadership”

  1. In case you would like to know where Mr Cathy got his principles of servant leadership. It comes from the Bible and more specifically, the model of servant leadership came from the example of Jesus Christ who is the essence of the story of the New Testament.

    I would entertain any comments, thoughts, hateful statements, please share them.

  2. This is such a refreshing read. I have known for years why Chick-fil-A does not open on Sunday’s and I respect that. In today’s society customer service is lacking some of that respect. I’ve reached a point where I do not drive off from a fast food stop until I check my bag to make sure the order is right and a “thank you-come again” or even a smile is rare. What keeps a business open is quality, consistency and a friendly staff certainly helps. You put that all together and you have Chick-fil-A. I am not a frequent visitor but when I have stopped, I am always impressed with the manner in which it is managed.

    You have employee’s in the parking lot taking orders at busy times to keep the traffic flowing. When I pull up whoever is at the window is always very friendly and personable. Now that is refreshing these days and it is the little things in life that matter.

    When I have my dog with me, they give her a treat too. Good job and congratulations on your success! Some things are just not meant to change.

  3. God bless Mr. Cathy, let’s not forget that the true sentiment and embodiment of “servant leadership” was exemplified, spoken and delivered way before 1970, the Bible tells us about servant leadership to this day.

  4. Hmmm gay-hating and chicken killing are not exactly traits I admire. He may have had other good qualities but his anti-gay comments made it so me and most of my friends will never set foot in his restaurant.

  5. I don’t believe Chick-fil-A’s “servant leader” Cathy is a good choice, as he only wanted to serve those who believed as he did. This is not putting oneself aside, which is a component of servant leadership. Cathy’s and Chick-fil-A’s highest priority is religious adherence, which has no place in employment.

    The only place Chick-fil-A should have in a credible newsletter advising HR professionals is in the what not to do section. I think their practices better qualify for your “Sue Me, Please!” features.

    Excerpted from the article linked below about Chick-fil-A:

    “Even if you oppose same-sex marriage, do you really want to support a company that advocates putting gay people in jail, or “exporting” them, just because they’re gay?”

    “Even if you don’t support same-sex marriage, do you really think gay marriage is “inviting God’s judgment on our nation”? ”

    “Even if you don’t support same-sex marriage, do you want to support what some (including Forbes) call a “cult” whose CEO says he would fire employees for “being sinful”?”

    “Even if you don’t support same-sex marriage, do you want to support a company that might fire women to force them to be “stay home” moms against their will?”

  6. Mr. Cathy’s leadership style, in part, saw his employees as his customer. Business leaders who recognize this and strive to lead in this way position their business to bring an excellent product or service to their market. I have always admired the way in which Chik-til-A operated their business and the values they embraced. We do not have a store in our area, but we always make a point of stopping at a Chik-fil-A when we travel as a family. I hope Mr. Cathy’s example and business principals will live on through those that follow him in the business. Thanks for the story and reminder of what a servant leader looks like.

  7. Any profile of his business is incomplete without including its hateful and ultimately unChristian opposition to full social participation for LGBT individuals in this country.

    Some leader.

    Some servant.

  8. Sorry, I can’t regard this man as a servant-leader. He was serving chiefly his own prejudices. The closing-on-Sunday rule is only part of the picture. While the most controversial statements were made by his son Dan, starting in 2003 when Truett was still very much in charge, the chain’s foundation began giving to anti-gay hate groups, including one involved in the disastrous invasion of people’s basic rights known as “conversion therapy.” They have retreated somewhat from these positions, but only because political leaders threatened to block their expansion of stores in significant territories. No, people foisting their own prejudices on others are not servants, they seek to be masters.

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