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9 Leadership Lessons & Quotes from Truett Cathy, Founder of Chick-fil-A

By Casey Slide

chick-fil-a logoPeople everywhere love Chick-fil-A, especially where I live, in the suburbs of Atlanta. If we have an occasion to go out to a fast food restaurant for a quick bite to eat, we always go to our local Chick-fil-A. Lunch-goers flock to the restaurant, and the drive-through line makes a complete loop around the building. No matter what time of day I visit Chick-fil-A, the restaurant always seems packed full of customers.

In addition to delicious food, Chick-fil-A has become and remained so popular among young and old for a variety of reasons. I believe the roots of the company go a lot deeper than fancy cut fries. This company has a rock-solid foundation in its core values, emulated every time you step inside its restaurant doors.

How did Chick-fil-A become so successful and so well-loved? The answer lies with its founder, Truett Cathy, and his truly inspirational leadership. Who exactly is Truett Cathy, and what can we learn from him about leadership?

Who Is Truett Cathy?

truett cathy chick-fil-aTruett Cathy is the founder and chairman of Chick-fil-A, the country’s second-largest chicken quick-service restaurant chain, based on annual sales. After growing up in poverty and working hard to help support his family, Cathy opened his first restaurant with his brother in 1946. The Atlanta-area restaurant, called the Dwarf Grill, was later renamed the Dwarf House. As his restaurant grew in popularity, Cathy opened his first Chick-fil-A in 1967 in Atlanta. From there, Chick-fil-A has grown to nearly 1,500 restaurants in 39 states.

In addition to Cathy’s natural entrepreneurial and leadership abilities, Cathy is a man of faith and wisdom and has formed a service-oriented business. This has led him to have some out-of-the-ordinary business practices, such as closing on Sunday and choosing high-quality and high-character franchise owners and employees. Cathy has strived to serve the community as well as young people, as evidenced through his scholarship programs.

Truett Cathy is the author of several books, including Eat Mor Chikin: Inspire More People.

Leadership Lessons from Truett Cathy

Through the life and leadership of Truett Cathy, we can learn how to have entrepreneurial success. By following these leadership lessons observed in the life of Cathy, we can achieve a more satisfying life and career ourselves. Here are nine leadership lessons to try to live by:

1. Second Mile Is Second Nature
This customer service concept applies to our professional lives, too. Many companies go the first mile to provide good customer service, but going the second mile indicates an effort to do something extra special. Examples of going the second mile include pulling the chair out for a pregnant woman or refilling a customer’s drink at a quick-service restaurant.

Chick-fil-A sought to make the second mile second nature, meaning the company taught employees that they should employ these “extra special” services automatically, instead of something they do every now and then. Honestly, I can’t remember going to a Chick-fil-A where they did not have someone walking around refilling drinks and bringing customers extra napkins. The company founder embedded this practice into the company culture, a real example of how to live a life of stewardship.

“Being in the food business, you have to remember to do each and every thing right, every time.”

2. Manage Your Household
Cathy has been married for over 60 years. He emphasizes always improving your marriage and never giving up on your relationship. He believes that if you have problems in your marriage or in your household, your problems directly reflect how you run a business. Your family should always come before your business, and if you do not take care of your family, your business suffers.

This also explains in part why Cathy decided to stay closed on Sundays. He believes families need Sunday to spend time together, and his restaurants do better because his employees work harder for him the rest of the week, and arrive on Monday refreshed for the new week. Happy employees mean happy customers.

“You have to be very careful about what you say. More importantly, you have to be very careful about what you do. You never know how or when you influence people – especially children.”

3. Perseverance
Truett Cathy took a huge step in the restaurant business by opening his second restaurant location, which burned down. However, instead of filing for bankruptcy because he didn’t have his restaurant properly insured, he put up tents with grills and continued to serve customers next to the destroyed building until he was able to pay for repairs.

Cathy has perseverance, and the will to never give up, even when the worst happens. Many people might give up after such a devastating loss, but a true leader never gives up just because challenges present themselves.

“No goal is too high if we climb with care and confidence.”

4. Remember Your Roots
Cathy believes that growing up in poverty was a blessing. He never takes his wealth for granted and he understands “small town America.” Living in poverty taught him life lessons that he could not have otherwise learned if he had a comfortable childhood. Cathy worked hard to achieve his success, and he can relate to those who now face poverty. As he relates to others, and others relate to him as well. You have to be relatable to lead, and to expect people to follow.

“As a kid, I can’t remember having anything to play with except a loose tooth. And that wasn’t mine. It was my brother’s.”

5. Hard Work
When Cathy was a young man, his family opened up their home to boarders, to bring in more income (i.e. renting out a room in your house). At times, their home was home to eight boarders along with his family of nine. During that time, Cathy learned the value of hard work as he helped his family serve those staying in their home. Cathy knew how to work hard, and he knew the benefits of hard work. He continued to work as he opened his restaurants and led his company into expansion and profitability.

Fact: Chick-fil-A has a policy that Cathy descendants must work for two years outside of the family business before they can work in the family business. The family doesn’t want their kids assuming that they automatically have a job with Chick-fil-A. They want their children to experience what every other college graduate experiences: finding a job on their own.

“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.”

6. Learning Ability
Your capacity to learn is more important than what you already know. Cathy freely admits he wasn’t the best student in school. In fact, he even fell behind. None of that mattered to him because he wanted to work hard and continue to learn. Leaders need to embrace a continual state of learning for self-improvement, and to develop new technologies, theories, and thinking.

“I wasn’t all that bright. I had difficulty keeping up in class and I had always carried with me a bit of an inferiority complex regarding socializing at school and I never felt confident about dating girls. But I enjoyed my work and I enjoyed the rewards of working. As I read Mr. Hill’s book, I realized I could do anything if I wanted it badly enough. His words motivated me and showed me that I live in a do-it-yourself world.”

7. Respect for Others
Just like people want to go to Chick-fil-A to eat, people want to follow Cathy. He had a great respect for others, evidenced in his service-oriented methodologies as well as in his success. If you respect others, others respect you. You must have the respect of those you lead in order to be a successful leader.

“Loyalty of your people is a key to most any business success.”

8. Discipline
Many aspects of Chick-fil-A embody Cathy’s beliefs about discipline. Chick-fil-A’s are closed on Sundays. In the fast-paced society in which we live, it takes discipline to slow down one day every week, and it also takes discipline to sacrifice potential earnings one day every week. Chick-fil-A’s menu also demonstrates Cathy’s discipline. Chick-fil-A has one of the healthier menus when compared to other quick-service restaurants. It takes discipline to eat healthy and live a healthy lifestyle, but leaders make that sacrifice for their benefit and the benefit of others.

“Why do we close on Sunday? Well, it started back in 1946 when I opened my first restaurant, a 24-hour coffee shop called The Dwarf Grill. After the first week, I determined that if it took seven days a week to make a living, I should be in some other business. Too, it was my conscience that I had to live with; I just never could come to the idea of dealing with money on the Lord’s Day. I became a Christian at age 12; that’s not to say that everything I’ve done since that time is becoming to a Christian, but I believe the Lord had blessed us because we recognize Him on this special day we call Sunday.”

9. Faith
Faith was at the root of everything that Truett Cathy did. His faith led him to make good decisions for his company and his employees. His faith led him to respect families and to keep the restaurants closed on Sundays. His faith led him to pipe Christian music into the restaurants, and to give his money and resources to many deserving students and young people. Draw from your faith as a way to bring out the best in yourself and your leadership skills.

“I believe that you can combine biblical principles and good business practices. I testified before Congress…on how to be honest and successful at the same time.”

Final Word

If you apply these nine principles to your career and professional life, you can succeed because you put yourself aside and others in front of you. Many people still wrongly believe that they must only look out for themselves in order to succeed and get ahead in their careers. Truett Cathy provides a living example of succeeding by contributing to the success of others, personally and professionally. Follow Cathy’s example of leadership and service to others to find success and satisfaction in your life.

What are some of the most important leadership lessons that you can take away from Truett Cathy’s example?

Casey Slide
Casey Slide lives with her husband and baby in Atlanta, GA. She graduated from the University of Florida in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering and worked for a prominent hospital in Atlanta. With the birth of Casey’s son in February 2010, she decided to become a stay-at-home mom. Casey’s interests include reading, running, living green, and saving money.

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  • Eugene Krabs

    Great article! And a great CEO indeed.

  • Kadarias Carter

    I love your sandwiches i am one of the most people that pay more money at your store please send me a free coupon to eat their please at 104 Peachtree Street Greenwood Southcarolina Thank you

  • Elizabeth I

    I am really impressed. I have never heard of Truett Cathy’s principles. I especially agree on the marriage issue. (I have been married for a little over 5 years.) On thing I learned during the first few years of marriage is that quote (I cannot recall who said it) “Most problems in marriage are managed, not solved.” Many problems in companies cannot be solved, but they can be managed better.

  • hoogypoogy

    WAKATAKA WOOOOOOOOOOO

  • Anonymous

    I love, love, love, love Chic-Fil-A …. and I ALWAYS crave it on Sundays, when it’s closed!!

  • Edmistonmarian

    More power to him. I agree with his values!

  • http://www.debtfreemarriage.org David Bibby

    Chick-Fil-A is my favorite place to go to with my family. In the Chick-Fil-A location where I live, the staff is ALWAYS friendly and are ready to serve you with a smile. They frequently visit your table and ask if you need anything, like a refill on your drink.

    Even though they are closed on Sunday, I do not think that they are hurting for business at all! They are always packed and very busy, yet they have the best service, the fastest drive through, and the best tasting food around.

    No I’m not an employee… but when my two kids are old enough to get their first job, I hope they would consider working there.

    • Casey Slide

      Oh I agree. I definitely hope my son would consider working there when the time comes as well!

  • Monica2rob

    Putting God 1st then goal…plan…prepare…….provision & fulfilled purpose…..he made an impact both spiritually as well as naturally…motivation

  • Lauriesue

    Good to know Mr. Cathy recognizes God’s principles never change even when the world around us is!

    • Casey Slide

      I couldn’t agree more!

  • Thanna Wentz

    Was Mr. C
    athy a guest on “Focus on the Family” with Dr. Dobson several years ago?

    • Casey Slide

      He may have been, but I didn’t hear it. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was.

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