Monday, March 5, 2012

An Evening with Dan Cathy of Chick Fil-A By Ashley Leith

Ashley is an advanced level rider based in Ocala, FL.  She is an ICP level III certified instructor, a member of the Professional Riders Organization Advisory Board and a Graduate A of the USPC.  Ashley also has a BA in English and theater from Rutgers University.  For more information, visit
The restaurant was buzzing with excitement.  Minutes after arriving and putting on a nametag I was approached by a man with a squeaky bald head and a warm smile.  He was wearing a collared shirt and a bright green sweater, giving me the impression of a Leprechaun.  He stuck out his hand.  “Hi, I’m Dan.”  In mild surprise I realized that this was Dan Cathy, the president and CEO of Chick Fil-A restaurants and the person whom I had come to hear speak.  I quickly realized, though, that this hands-on style of warmth and welcoming was a cornerstone of Cathy’s leadership style.  He invited me to get a fresh squeezed lemonade and to help myself to some fruit salad and freshly prepared chicken fingers.  After sampling some of the food I found a seat at a table along the wall.  Every employee in the Chick Fil-A restaurant on Rt. 200 in Ocala was bustling around with smiles on their faces refilling drinks and clearing plates. 
I was attending this function as a member of the Professional Riders Organization, but youth leadership groups and other local business professionals had also been invited to the speaking event.  After everyone was settled and fed, Cathy divided us up into five groups to tour the kitchen.  As Cathy said, “Maybe there is a reason why Chick Fil-A invites its customers to a backstage tour of their kitchens and other restaurants don’t.”  Cathy was very proud of the fact that Chick Fil-A uses fresh ingredients and whole chicken breasts breaded on-site.  I don’t often eat fast food and I had never been to a Chick Fil-A restaurant before that evening.  After the tour and the sampling of food that Cathy had offered his guests, however, I realized that I would happily go back. 
After walking through the kitchen in groups we sat down to hear Cathy speak.  First, he pulled out an old-fashioned leather doctor’s satchel.  He approached a few teens from the ROTC Airforce group that was in attendance.  He told them to each pull something out of the bag.  He then held up the objects one at a time and explained to the audience how each of the tools in what he called his “leadership bag” helped him.  One of the items was an air mask that is deploys when an airplane looses oxygen in the cabin.  What was the lesson behind this tool?  As a leader, you must always put your own air mask on first in order to be able to help others.  Cathy said that it took him years to not feel guilty about taking time during the middle of the day to exercise, or taking time to spend with his family, or heaven forbid getting eight hours of sleep a night.  He came to realize, though, that other people relied on him and if he was not fresh and healthy, he would not be able to lead them. 
Another item in the bag was a slinky.  On the slinky were three statements.  The first read, “Leaders go first.”  The second read, “Leaders develop followers.”  The last statement said, “Followers become leaders.”  After reading these statements out loud, Cathy “walked” the slinky down some steps as a demonstration.  I thought Cathy’s use of physical objects to drive home leadership concepts was very memorable.
During the discussion Cathy also brought up concepts he uses in business.  He talked about surrounding yourself with “the right people on the right seat on the right bus.”  He also told us one of his favorite acronyms -- the word SERVE.  The letters stood for, See and shape the future, Engage and develop others, Reinvent continuously, Value results and relationships, and, Embody the values. 
Cathy’s principles have proven effective.  Chick Fil-A has recently become a debt-free organization and has grown fiscally every year since being founded by Cathy’s father in 1967.  In the Ocala restaurant, the employees were very upbeat and far more knowledgeable about Chick Fil-A that I would have anticipated.  The company obviously takes the time to hire employees at every level who believe in the Chick Fil-A philosophy.    
I showed up cold that evening and didn’t know what to expect from either Dan Cathy or his talk.  What I came away with, however, was renewed inspiration to be a better leader.  Professionals in the sport of three-day-eventing may not run large corporations, but we are all businesspeople and leaders.  It was refreshing to see Cathy’s positive energy and intrapersonal skills from the perspective of another business model.  Even though I know nothing about the restaurant business, Cathy’s points were certainly ones that we could all learn from.

Photo of Dan Cathy courtesy of

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