Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Dan Cathy on Leading Like Jesus

  • Janet Chismar Senior Editor, News & Culture
  • Published Nov 10, 2003
Dan Cathy on Leading Like Jesus

As president for one of the nation's largest family-owned quick-service restaurant chains, Chick-fil-A's Dan Cathy represents the next generation of leadership for the Atlanta-based company founded by his father, S. Truett Cathy.


Dan's nearly life-long career at Chick-fil-A began at age 9 as he sang songs for customers and did radio commercials for the chain's original "Dwarf House" restaurant in Hapeville, Ga. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Georgia Southern University, Dan returned to Chick-fil-A where he served as director of operations - opening more than 50 new Chick-fil-A restaurants throughout the country. As Chick-fil-A continued to grow, so did Dan's responsibilities with the company. His steady rise through the ranks to become president is a testament to his dedication to the Chick-fil-A brand and its long-held principles and traditions.


In his "spare" time, Dan has completed the owner/management course at Harvard Business School, earned his pilot's license and has run in and completed the Los Angeles and Boston marathons.


On Nov. 20, Dan will speak at The Center for FaithWalk Leadership’s “Lead Like Jesus” celebration coming to The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. This inaugural leadership event will be simulcast across the nation to select markets and will feature well-known business and Christian leaders. It will be hosted by Ken Blanchard, co-author of The One Minute Manager, and Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life .


Dan spoke with by phone last week and shared his thoughts on the conference, on servant leadership and on what it means to lead like Jesus. How did you get involved with Lead Like Jesus?


Dan Cathy: I was invited as a guest by Dr. Ken Blanchard, who is the author of the One-Minute Manager. We’ve been involved in a number of different projects over the past several years. He co-authored a book with my dad, Truett Cathy, called The Generosity Factor. As a result of our conversations and a common interest that we have in the whole subject of leadership models – and being lifelong learners ourselves – we are partnering up on this particular venture and excited about it. Do you know what you are going to talk about yet?


Dan Cathy: The whole theme of the conference has to do with exploring the leadership model of Jesus as a timely, relevant leadership model that has application in today’s world and in today’s marketplace. I’ll be touching on the role of the servant leader that Jesus depicted at the Last Supper as He put a towel around His waist and knelt down to wash the feet of His disciples. Tell me about what it means to you personally to lead like Jesus. How does that play out in your day-to-day life?

Dan Cathy: I find that on a daily basis, I need to be taught by the Master. I’ve had a tremendous role model in my dad, Truett Cathy, and I see that in his life, it’s so easy to get led astray and get pulled in different directions, but he’s been centered in his life. He’s had that element of focus. As a tremendous role model as he is, there are other role models out there that we could all follow. But in our zeal to learn and to have good mentors, we may have overlooked probably our most potent leadership model that we have access to and that is the writing and teachings and the demonstration of leadership as exhibited by Jesus himself. I guess we usually don’t associate Jesus with business or leadership.


Dan Cathy: We may think of it in terms of teaching a Sunday school lesson or we think of it in terms of doctrinal issues, but as it relates to our interaction that we have with people, the way we speak to people, the time that we might associate with others, we don’t think about Jesus.


Jesus was very comfortable with all people and all circumstances – very, very diverse cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds – that in and of itself is a tremendous lesson to us. If people felt that comfortable to be with Him, do we make ourselves that available? Are we that approachable? Are we looking for opportunities as leaders to associate with a wide range of people? When we go have lunch, who do we sit with? 


As we read about who Jesus associated with, we find that He often was criticized by the leadership of the day and I think that’s a good question for ourselves. If we aren’t being criticized from time to time because of the people we associate ourselves with, we have good reason to wonder if we really are leading like Jesus would have led. How do you juggle your time demands and face the challenges you need to face on a daily basis? Can you share a little wisdom?


Dan Cathy: We have to decide right up front what is important. The idea that we don’t have time for this or time for that is a tremendous indictment on any of us, when in fact we all have the same amount of time. As Stephen Covey would say, we have to put the big rocks in first. It’s an issue of putting into our calendar proactively the things that create the most value for us. It’s one of my priorities.


I also put into my calendar the things that I know I need to do to manage me. I lose the ability to influence others if I fail to exercise the leadership that I need to manage me. If I don’t get my running and exercise in, I lose the ability to even address the issue of physical fitness. If I don’t take care of myself, if I don’t spend time each morning in Bible study and in prayer time, then I lose the ability to talk about those subjects with others.


Again, this goes back to Jesus. He said that it’s not what you say that’s nearly as important as what you do. We find that the most powerful communication method we have as a leader is not what we say, but what we do – what we personally practice. How can we be servant leaders in our workplaces?


Dan Cathy:  First off, we need to have heart of a servant. We have to realize that we’ve all been forgiven. God’s grace has been extended to us; we’ve been bought with a price. We are not our own. We’re His to be used by Him for Him —

His ambassadors at His disposal – and have a sense of humility about the way we act and what our priorities should be. 


First we ought to pray, “Lord, would you help me to have a heart of a servant?” Second we should pray, “Would you help me to see the opportunities in which I can jump in and play a part and help someone else out and be concerned about the affairs of others?”


I found in playing golf, for instance, I used to get anxious about “maybe I didn’t play such a good game of golf.” And I realized how self-centered I was – that it was about me and my game and taking care of my ball and finding it in the woods. If my enjoyment of the game of golf was determinant upon how I played, I never could be assured that a half-day I spent on the golf course would be enjoyable. But it clicked in my mind one day, “Why don’t I just stay and be concerned about the other players, taking care of them?”


If I took care of others, I could always be assured with confidence I’d have a great day playing golf and I don’t play golf all that often. But I learned a great life lesson from that and that is our agenda really needs to be focused on others and again, that’s what Jesus really modeled for us.


For more information on the Lead Like Jesus conference, click here. This inaugural leadership event will be simulcast across the nation to select markets and will feature well-known business and Christian leaders. It will be hosted by Ken Blanchard, co-author of the One Minute Manager,  and Rick Warren, author of the Purpose Driven Life. Other scheduled speakers include Dan Cathy, President of Chick-fil-A, Laurie Beth Jones, author of Jesus CEO, Rosey Grier, legendary football star, Phil Hodges, co-author of The Servant Leader, William Pollard, Chairman Emeritus Service Master, Estean Lenyoun, President of Impact Urban American, Don Soderquist, Senior Vice Chairman of Wal-Mart, and James "Micky" Blackwell, former President and COO of Lockhead Martin Aeronautical Systems.