Long after the current brouhaha about Chick-fil-A and same-sex marriage has subsided, several lessons for 21st century leaders may endure.
A decade ago I wrote of the rapidly evolving public expectations of CEOs and other business leaders. In the new world of 21st century leadership, they would need to become “corporate politicians.”
Politicians routinely speak of bringing business principles to government. Now, effective business leaders must bring political skills to strategy, governance and implementation.
Chick-fil-A 21st Century Leadership Lessons
Among the 21st century leadership lessons from Chick-fil-A’s recent events:
1. Shared Values Create Value. Serve to Lead focuses on the new vistas of service created by customers’ rising expectation–nay,demand–that their purchases reflect and advance their values. In today’s globalized world, instantaneous competition can render almost any product or service a commodity. Differentiation can be achieved by having one’s offerings advance the values of customers. How is it that a chicken sandwich company bonds with its employees and consumers through a political issue that is, objectively, far removed from its business mission? Through the shared values invoked.
2. Melding of Public and Private Spaces. 21st century leadership is about breaking down traditional barriers. This includes barriers between public and private sectors, between life and work. Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy has achieved rock-star status among his supporters. He has also become a symbol of villainy among his more vociferous critics. In the Internet Age, Mr. Cathy’s influence is greater than ever. At the same time, he has lost his much of his previous privacy. Anything he does, anywhere, can be filmed and placed online–and with malicious intent. Today, a CEO must be prepared for scrutiny every bit as severe as anyone holding public office. Attempts to draw a fine line between, say, political contributions and speech by a CEO and those by the company itself, are unlikely to be credible.
3. Serving Employees Comes First. Chick-fil-A employee Rachel Smith exhibited grace in dealing with an abusive customer. Employees are trapped in a difficult position whenever their service to their employers and to customers makes them vulnerable. Enterprises should respect the views and autonomy of their employees; they should not be regarded as conscripts in the expression of corporate policy outside of the immediate confines of their job descriptions.
The new demands of 21st century communication technologies underscore the importance that CEOs must place on serving their employees as job one–because it is through serving their employees that they can best serve their customers. More than ever, employees are 24-7 ambassadors for the enterprises of which they are a part.
4. Transparency is Revolutionary—and Inevitable. With hindsight, it’s clear that Chick-fil-A has been operating in a fleeting, privileged space. On the one hand, the company has benefited from the support of customers who share its values, best exemplified by its conspicuous decision to forego business on the Christian Sabbath. It has been able to fly under the radar, donating corporate profits toward causes consistent with those values. Those donations have not been a secret. They have been publicly disclosed in various forums.It’s safe to assume that many Chick-fil-A customers would be supportive of those donations, while others would not. It’s also safe to assume that most of those who would be opposed have not been aware of the donations made possible by their purchases.
That gap is now being closed. The information that has long been publicly available was not in a format that engendered accountability. That it now is available in a publicly accessible format represents a major change. An upcoming Serve to Lead post will focus on its implications.
Chick-fil-A | 4 Lessons for 21st Century Leaders