A mighty tree fell in the forest of business leadership today, with the death of 93-year-old Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A. Truett was a pioneer, an innovator, and a true gentleman of character and courage. He improved the lives of millions, way beyond “sellin’ chicken”, and leaves a legacy that makes him a real standout in the annals of American business.
I’ll quickly dispense with the elephant in the blogpost and acknowledge that not everyone likes Chick-fil-A, whether it be their food or their values. But I’ll allow to speak for itself the fact that their supporters overwhelmingly eclipse their detractors. Just drive by any Chick-fil-A restaurant any day of the week (except, of course, Sunday, on which they’re closed), and you’ll see what I mean.
It was my privilege to meet Truett on a couple of occasions, while we were conducting leadership training for Chick-fil-A, and he was gracious enough to let me interview him in 1997, while Bill and I were writing our first book, Contented Cows Give Better Milk.
Here are 3 things I know about Truett Cathy:
1 – He was authentic. Truett’s faith was his life, and he uttered no apologies for it. He went from millionaire to billionaire years ago, but continued to teach a boys’ Sunday School class at his church until his health failed. You could count on his word. Many, many people did, and have built very successful businesses and fulfilling careers.
2 – He was a giver. In addition to his personal philanthropy, Truett’s company has given more than $68 million to more than 700 educational and charitable organizations in the last three years alone. Since its inception, the company’s Team Member Scholarship Program has provided more than $30 million to help more than 30,000 employees attend more than 500 different colleges and universities. Through its WinShape Foundation, it has invested millions in programs directed toward helping young people. And the company regularly donates food to people who are hungry, and provides organized relief for victims of natural disasters.
3 – He was a forgiver. Here’s a story we relate in our 2007 book, Contented Cows MOOVE Faster: It was told to me by Truett’s son, Dan, Chick-fil-A’s Chief Operating Officer, when Dan invited me to travel across the country with him on a whirlwind grand opening tour to the Midwest and California.
Dan and his father were walking around the original Dwarf House restaurant (the forerunner of Chick-fil-A) one evening, inspecting the premises. It seems that a gaze upward revealed a fresh collection of empty beer cans on the roof of the Dwarf House. As alcohol never has been on the menu of the Dwarf House, or Chick-fil-A, it was determined that, unfortunately, the spent vessels most likely came from an employee engaging in off-label activities on the job. As much as Truett didn’t like to think of any of his beloved employees drinking at work, he suspected a middle-aged fellow named James.
When Truett confronted him, he gently extracted a genuine confession. What happened next owes to James’s greatly improved judgment in having told the truth about the incident and to Truett’s exceptional maturity. Name any employer. Drinking beer on the clock and then littering the premises with the evidence would pretty much be grounds for dismissal without intervention from even the most liberal of unfair labor treatment folks.
Instead, Truett forgave James. James didn’t get a lecture about how wrong it was to drink on the job. Truett figured James was an adult and therefore knew what he did was wrong. He didn’t get fired. He didn’t get written up. He barely got a reprimand. He got forgiven. Which is not to say his deed got overlooked. By forgiving rather than firing James, Truett took the bond of trust between the two men to a completely new level, something that was not lost on James over the balance of his long career with the company.
Many prayers, including ours, are being said today for the Cathy family, and in thanks for a life well-lived. Godspeed, Truett.
Richard Hadden is a leadership speaker, author, and consultant who helps organizations improve their business results by virtue of a focused, engaged, capably led workforce. He and Bill Catlette are the authors of the popular “Contented Cows” leadership book series, and Rebooting Leadership. Their newest book, Contented Cows STILL Give Better Milk, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Learn more about them and their work at ContentedCows.com.