A 21st century Change Leader. S. Truett Cathy

Leadership is a complex phenomenon.  Over the year, researchers have tried to ascertain the true qualities of a leader (Savage-Austin & Honeycutt, 2011).  One thing is clear: leaders are not born into leadership, Imageand you cannot make a leader.  Leaders rise to existence by circumstances. Those who show up to the occasion are leaders (Sweet, 2004). With the emergence of the 21st century, it is clear that one’s family tree, inheritance, or even political affiliation is not what makes a successful leader.  If these did matter, Samuel Truett Cathy is the exception to the rule. Born during the depression, his father collected insurance premiums for income and ended up with flour, sorghum, and chickens, which were helpful to the family, but did not pay the insurance premiums.  This meant that he had to come up with the money for the premiums himself.  Consequently, Truett’s mother decided to open a boarding house where she housed seven to eight extra people on a weekly basis, which helped contribute to the financial situation at home (Cathy, 2002).  This depression era upbringing forged the principles of leadership that led S. Truett Cathy and Chick Fil A with annual sales of over three billion dollar a year, which makes them the second largest growing quick-service restaurant in the United States, with forty-three consecutive years of financial growth (Mishler, 2012).  This treatise will discuss the attributes that made Chick Fil A founder and chairman, Samuel Truett Cathy, a successful change leader.

Servant Leadership

            In an ever-changing world where scriptural principles are under attack, Cathy makes no excuse for applying Biblical principles in building his organization.  In 1982, Chick-fil-A established its corporate purpose statement, “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us.  To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.”  To drive this point home, Cathy chose to operate his business on a six-day workweek and close on Sunday. This decision makes little business sense, in light of the fact, that in the quick-service industry, 20 percent of the revenue comes from weekend sales (Davis & Lucas, 2007).  For Cathy, stewardship is embracing all that God entrusts to his care.  This includes the staff, employees, stockholders, and stakeholder of Chick-fil-A.  As a change leader, Cathy exercises stewardship as his influence brings change to the culture, strategies, polices, and structure of the quick service restaurant industry (Ebener, 2011). According to Russell and Stone (2002), former CEO of the Greenleaf Center, Larry Spears, concluded that Greenleaf posited the idea that stewardship is one of the 10 qualities of servant leadership, which is the leadership style of S. Truett Cathy.

            Servant leadership is a growing trend among leaders and organizations and is an influential tool in building a successful organization, as seen in the leadership style of S. Truett Cathy. Additionally, a servant leader is a change leader, because they seek to change the culture of leadership by encouraging people as they serve (Parolini, Patterson, & Winston, 2009).  Enter any Chick-fil-A and at the end of the transaction, you will hear every employee say, “my pleasure.” This simple act of kindness elevates Chick-fil-A above all others in the quick-service industry, because it lets the patrons know that the employee takes pleasure in serving.

Trust and Ethics

            When leaders model a servant attitude within an organization, it creates a high level of trust. According to Joseph and Winston (2005), servant leadership is the antecedent of both leader and organizational trust.  When servant leaders exhibit the characteristic of trust, there is relational openness in the organization (Doraiswamy, 2012).  Trust is an important quality to demonstrate as a change leader, and trust is a by-product of an ethical leader. Hosmer (1995) developed a definition of trust by stating, “Trust is Imagethe expectation by one person, group, or firm of ethically justifiable behavior, that is morally correct decisions and actions based upon ethical principles of analysis on the part of the other person, group, or firm in a joint endeavor or economic exchange” (p. 399). Without ethics, there is no trust. Behavior that is justified by ethical behavior happens when leaders are more concerned about how their decisions affect the good of the society than how it affects them. This is what Hosmer (1995) calls “The ethical principle of analysis” (p. 399).

            One major quality of a change leader is ethical behavior, which is a quality maintained by S. Truett Cathy. It is naive of any organization to think that simply writing a set of rules or ethical codes will cause everyone within the organization to act in an ethical manner. Conversely, the foundation of an ethical culture is established and encouraged when the leadership of an organization lives an ethical life (Yukl, 2010).  For example, Cathy’s, decision to close on Sunday and forgo the profits from that one-day of sales is an ethical decision rooted in his Biblical principles.  Additionally, Cathy’s ethical position led him to close a restaurant in Daytona Beach Florida because its falling profit margin. In that part of Florida, 70% of sales take place from the sale of alcohol and operating on Sunday (Ventura, 2006).  The decline in profits occurred as a direct result of Cathy’s policy to close on Sunday.  Truett made the decision to close the restaurant, and donated the building to a mission church that moved into the area. For some, this is not an ethical dilemma, but for Cathy, it set the example that his organization’s approach to value-based ethics is positive and rewarding.  When the mission and values are parallel with the ethical values of the organization, the members of the organization find motivation to openly display ethical behavior (Ardichvili, Mitchell, & Jondle, 2009).


            In the present economic downturn, many organizational change leaders are looking for ways to increase their profit margins. Many have extended hours of operation, offered a greater variety of product, developed complicated systems, and even moved outside of the United States. Change leaders can learn some important lessons from S. Truett Cathy’s servant leadership style. For example, following how he developed an organizational culture of trust and ethical values based on Biblical principles. Change leaders ace many challenges as they discover new ways to help their organizations develop a culture of trust that values all members of the organization. Cathy discovered this in his Biblical principles. Change leaders understand that cultural experience, religious, and philosophical beliefs play important roles in their organization. The difference with Cathy is clear: while other leaders refuse to embrace their values, Cathy boldly goes where others fear to tread.


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