Author: Matt Waldman


Photo of Dan Cathy speaking at the Terry Leadership Speaker Series in 2011
Cathy speaking at the Terry Leadership Speaker Series in 2011.

A conductor’s baton, a smartphone, a pocket bible, a roll of toilet paper, a tiara, and a slinky have nothing in common at first glance, but they are relics from a Terry College guest-speaker’s personal journey to acquire leadership wisdom. It was a path that began with a young boy, a knife, and a chore at his family’s Dwarf Grill just south of Atlanta. Over 50 years later, that boy now runs a 1600-restaurant empire.

The wielder of the knife was Dan Cathy, who absorbed his first lessons about the restaurant business flicking dried-up wads of chewing gum from the bottoms of tables. Cathy, the President and COO of Chick-fil-A, told his leadership story to Chris Hanks’ entrepreneurship class this fall, imparting wisdom from a weathered doctor’s bag filled with this unlikely collection of props.

“Vision is a picture of the future that produces passion,” says Cathy, who opened his lecture with a short history of Chick-fil-A’s evolution from a single store at Greenbriar Mall to an operation with sights set on Manhattan and San Francisco—a stepping-stone to Europe and Asia. A conductor’s baton was the first item to emerge from Cathy’s bag.

“If you take this baton you’ve got to lead. You’ve got to set the tempo,” says Cathy, an amateur trumpeter. “You’ve got to be obstinate about the sound that you want…and you’ve got to stop the whole rehearsal until you get [it].”

Cathy shared Chick-fil-A’s current challenges of maintaining a balance between quality, service, and the bottom line while growing his business. He framed this struggle into a big-picture ethics lesson—a smartphone in one hand and a pocket bible in the other.

“This [phone] represents all the stuff that is changing. As a leader you better be really on top of your game…so you don’t get complacent,” says Cathy, who told the students to embrace change. He then pointed to his bible and explained that timeless truths and lessons never change. “Just as you’re passionate about leading a crusade for change, improvement, and modernization of a 66 year-old, family business, you have got to be just as passionate about the things that haven’t changed.”

Cathy then engaged the entrepreneurship students in a humorous but instructive mini-seminar on how to fold toilet paper as done at fine hotels and restaurants. It’s something Cathy still does for his wife in their bathrooms at home, underscoring the point that customers appreciate detail.

“Leadership is all about the details and nuances that are difference makers,” says Cathy, who encourages students to have an insatiable appetite for seeking ways to make their ventures stand out from the crowd. “Be different. It’s about building a brand.”

Cathy transitioned from the nuances of folding toilet paper to donning a plastic tiara. After the student-paparazzi finished taking cellphone shots, Cathy explained that the tiara represents the need for leaders to design experiences like Chick-fil-A’s Daddy-Daughter Date Nights that reinforce the brand.

Cathy, who began the class recounting his youth at the Dwarf Grill in Hapeville, put a fitting end to the lecture when he produced a Slinky from his bag of leadership lessons, demonstrating how the toy represents a profound lesson on what is at the heart of great leadership.

“Leaders go first. It will be lonely, scary…and you will have to be bold and courageous and do it on a hunch. When you’re going in the right direction you’ll have followers. You have to spend time with them on the phone, when they birth babies. Develop them. Then that’s when the magic happens because the next generations of leaders are today’s followers. That’s why you have to be so intent about leadership development. Success is about succession and you have to start thinking about that day one, not five years before you retire.”