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The Legacy of a Great Leader

Ten years ago, my good friend Mark Miller co-wrote a book entitled, The Secret, with Ken Blanchard. The book was really an exploration into the idea of what great leaders know and do.  In the end, the secret of great leadership is simply this: great leaders serve. Mark’s many years in the Chick-fil-A organization, serving as Vice-President of Training and Development, prepared him to make the profound observations encapsulated in his book:         

            See and Shape the Future

            Engage and Develop Others

            Reinvent Continuously

            Value Results and Relationship

            Embody the Values

As Mark puts it, “When we say, ‘Great Leaders Serve’ we’re referring to both an attitude (an underlying desire to serve) and specific practices the best servant leaders exhibit on a regular basis.”

There is no doubt, in the minds of many, that Truett Cathy was a great leader. Upon learning of his death this morning at the age of 93, I was deeply saddened and at the same time incredibly grateful. In recent weeks, two very famous entertainers have passed away, Robin Williams and Joan Rivers. Both were unexpected and caught us by surprise, Williams took his own life and Rivers was undergoing surgery that wasn’t supposed to be life-threatening. Since their deaths, the digital world has been lit ablaze with remembering and memorializing…and for good reason, as both were such accomplished entertainers.

This is why I can be both sad and grateful on a day when Mr. Cathy has died. Because as people survey the landscape of his career, as he is memorialized and remembered through video, social media, and the press; a portrait of leadership will emerge that is exceedingly God-honoring. His life was the incarnation of the principles outlined in Mark’s book, and so much more.

Though I didn’t know Mr. Cathy personally, I learned a great deal from a distance:

  • I learned that one must, at times, stand alone on their convictions before one can stand apart as an influencer. Everyone knows that the over 1,800 Chick-fil-A restaurants are not open for business on Sundays, a conviction Cathy held when he owned just one restaurant.
  • I learned that generosity is a stronger force than greed, and compassion is more important than the bottom line. Mr. Cathy has fostered children for over 30 years and funded homes for children in need, built camps and conferences to support families, and given out over $23 million in scholarships to restaurant employees.
  • I learned that excellence is a non-negotiable standard in the life of a leader. If you have ever been to a Chick-fil-A then you know you are at a restaurant, not a fast-food joint. I have had the privilege of being at the headquarters in Atlanta, GA, the WinShape camps and conference centers in Rome, GA, and of course have frequented restaurants all over the country. A standard of excellence is a thread woven throughout the fabric of the Chick-fil-A organizational culture.


In the end, it is a sad day, a day to mourn, a day to remember. But it is also a day to be grateful for the life and leadership of a man who saw his influence, wealth and accomplishments as nothing more than tools to serve his earthly purpose as a follower of Jesus

On this day there is not ambiguity or confusion. Mr. Cathy is not at the great Chick-fil-A in the sky, or some other romanticized mythical notion. Long ago, Truett Cathy placed his faith and trust in Jesus, and now he is in the presence of God.  He once said, “I’d like to be remembered as one who kept my priorities in the right order. We live in a changing world, but we need to be reminded that the important things have not changed, and the important things will not change if we keep our priorities in proper order.”

Looking back on his life and accomplishments, it becomes overwhelmingly clear…Truett Cathy was The Secret to what made Chick-fil-A such a great organization.

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