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Why ‘Servant Leadership’ Is, for Some CEOs, a Winning Approach

Maybe it’s something in the air in Atlanta, but three companies based there—and their CEOs or former chiefs—have emerged as leaders of a quiet but insistent movement by more companies toward what has become known as “servant leadership.” However, it’s a philosophy that business leaders anywhere, in any vertical, can apply just as well.

Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, and Joel Manby, former CEO of Herschend Family Entertainment, each has written a book based on their embrace and execution of servant leadership at their companies, while the philosophy is one of the core principles that is celebrated in a new book about Chick-fil-A by Dee Ann Turner, the company’s vice president of corporate talent.

Servant leadership essentially involves a CEO or company owner’s decision to achieve success for the company and its employees by putting them first, by expecting workers to put customers and vendors first, and by creating a culture of self-sacrifice together for the ultimate good of the entity.

“Leadership is about the bottom line and loving the people you work with, and making your community a better place, and feeling a sense of satisfaction at the end of every day, and leading employees who can’t imagine working anywhere else,” wrote Manby in his 2012 treatise on servant leadership, Love Works: Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders

“Servant leadership can’t be credible without performance.”

As Bachelder—who recently was celebrated as the 2015 Norman Award winner by the U.S. restaurant industry—put it, “lov[ing] the people we lead” is “truly a game-changing notion.”

Leaders of the three companies—at Chick-fil-A, beginning with the late founder S. Truett Cathy— base their notions of servant leadership in large part on Christian principles embodied in the New Testament.

Bachelder, for example, credited her adoption of a servant-leadership philosophy to reading the iconic Christian tome, The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren, as she recovered from cancer in 2001. Before that, she told an award-banquet audience, she was a traditional, self-focused leader.

She said that brave leaders, while self-absorbed, are “more likely to focus on results,” while humble, servanthood-based leaders often think serving others is an end in itself, according to But “servant leadership can’t be credible without performance,” she cautions. “People can’t be served without positive results. There’s no future without results.”

And Bachelder has gotten those at Popeyes. The chain has posted seven straight years of same-store sales increases, is adding hundreds of stores a year and is growing globally, an enviable record in a fast-food industry where slow-growing household incomes and other factors have slowed many traditional giants.

She also recently published a book on her management philosophy, Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others

Meanwhile, as Manby led Herschend to strong growth in sales and profitability and return to its private shareholders, and added properties such as the Harlem Globetrotters, he was applying a servant-leadership philosophy he had adapted from the Bible’s 1 Corinthians 13, known as “the love chapter,” which espouses principles including patience, kindness, truth and forgiveness.

Such a culture already was in place at Herschend, which operates theme parks and other attractions nationwide, including Silver Dollar City and Dollywood, when Manby became CEO in 2003. Founders Jack and Pete Herschend had established a “servanthood” focus, exemplified by a statue in the lobby at headquarters of Jesus washing the feet of his disciple Peter. Though significantly enhanced by Manby, that culture remains in place after his departure to become CEO of SeaWorld earlier this year.

At Chick-fil-A, Turner provides insights into the company’s servant-leadership philosophy in her new book, It’s My Pleasure: The Impact of Extraordinary Talent and Compelling Culture.

The tremendous success of Chick-fil-A under Cathy for about a half-century, and lately under his son Dan Cathy, are well known, including the chain’s leadership position in the chicken fast-food business and its corporate staff-retention rates of 95%.

“It’s not uncommon for the franchisees to come in every morning and greet each and every one of the employees,” Turner told “At the end of their shifts, they thank them for serving.”

And she said that millennials actually are more interested in working for a servanthood company than their predecessors. “This generation cares about being a servant generation,” Turner said. “They want us to care about the planet. They want to know we care about their future. “

It’s not for every CEO or company. But servant leadership is a management style that goes down easy and has become known for producing results.


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