Recently, I had the opportunity of attending at the Atlanta Renaissance Dinner at the High Museum featuring wine, music, art, terrific speakers, and over 100 works of art by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
The purpose of the dinner was to advance diverse leaders in top leadership across all sectors of America through a series of Ted Talks given by presenters from AT&T, Accenture, Coca-Cola, and more.
In addition to attending, I also had the opportunity of being one of the featured presenters. Below is the brief talk I gave about Remembered & Remarkable Leadership.
Tonight I want to speak to you about Remembered & Remarkable Leadership. In short, I want to provoke you to examine the question “Are you a leading in a way that will be remembered and remarkable?”
Recently I attended an event at Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia home. As I stood on the porch next to a rocking chair, looking out over the Potomac River, I was awed by the beauty, comfort, wealth, and peace of this place.
A few minutes later, an historian told the story of George Washington’s legendary leadership. He described Washington’s winter with his soldiers at Valley Forge – training them for battle, fighting the cold and sickness, leading them forward, despite their fear of the future.
I was struck by the stark contrast of Washington’s choice; would he rest comfortably on a 5000 acre farm overlooking the Potomac that in today’s dollars is worth half a billion? Or, would he leave this porch by the Potomac to lead a nation to liberty, with the risk of being hung for treason?
A leader so remembered and remarkable in our nation’s history, that his face graces our dollar bill. So, why was Washington’s leadership both remembered and remarkable?
- He chose to leave comfort of Mt. Vernon for a purpose greater than himself, the purpose of securing liberty for our nation;
- He chose to selflessly and courageously serve side-by-side with his soldiers in the dead of winter at Valley Forge, preparing them for the difficult battles ahead, and victory in the end.
That is why he is remembered and remarkable.
Now, I don’t expect that any one of us will be a George Washington. But Washington demonstrated an approach to leadership that I challenge you to consider, whether you are leading a large enterprise, a small organization, or a project team in your community.
- Do I have a purpose for leadership that is greater than my own ambition?
- Do my actions focus on serving those that have been entrusted to my leadership?
The unexamined life is not worth living.
But in fact, that is the life most leaders live. I have been asking people for over eight years, “Why do you do the work that you do? Why do you lead?”
And it doesn’t matter whether I ask a restaurant general manager, a small business owner, or the CEO – the perfunctory answer is always some version of these words: To earn a paycheck. Accumulate wealth. Put my kids through college.
Now I don’t doubt that you must pay your bills. And of course, your family is important.
But do you think that George Washington would have said “I need the paycheck” if you asked him his purpose as a military leader? Do you think his soldiers would have responded the same way if he sent them orders from the porch of Mt. Vernon? Do you think he would be remembered if his goal was to accumulate more real estate and wealth for his family? Do you think his leadership would have been remarkable, if he had not won the battles that led to liberty for a nation?
Here is the paradox you must wrestle if you want to be a remembered and remarkable leader. Your leadership purpose must be something greater than your self-interests. In short, to be remembered and remarkable, you must lead for the sake of others.
Robert Greenleaf, the thought leader of servant leadership, said that the test of your leadership is this:
Are the people better off because of your leadership?
The reason this question is so essential, is that no one will remember your leadership if it is about you. They will only remember your leadership if it serves them well.
At Popeyes, we are in the middle of a grand experiment. We are transforming the leadership culture of the company from a mindset of self-interest, to a mindset of service to others (What do I give?) We are on a steep, challenging learning curve.
Our first decision was, who do we serve? Would we strive to improve our service to our guests? Would we focus on the interests of our shareholders? Would we serve the owners who had invested their life savings in a twenty year contract to be a Popeyes franchisee?
Based on my words, you would shout out, well of course, you would choose the franchisee.
But this is not the norm in our industry. Typically the corporation serves its self-interest, focusing on the guest, which means growing sales, and delivering for the investor, which means getting the share price up.
In real life, the franchisee is typically viewed as a complaining, emotional small business owner who is forever challenging the leadership and slowing down progress. Our team decided to challenge conventional thinking and see what would happen if we focused on serving our franchisees as our #1 customer.
We believed in our hearts that if we took actions that substantially improved their lives and livelihood, all the other stakeholders would be well served our employees, our guests, and our shareholders.
So we apply the Greenleaf test of “are the franchisees better off” because of our decision to serve them first?
Five years after deciding to build relationship with and results for our franchisees, Popeyes average restaurant sales have increased from $1MM per restaurant to $1.2MM per restaurant, up 20%. That sales growth combined with a $36MM cost savings initiative has increased the franchisee’s average restaurant profits by 35% or $63,000 per restaurant. Our 350 newly opened restaurants now deliver top tier cash on cash returns to our franchisees, compared to nearly zero returns five years ago.
The other stakeholders, how did they fare? Our employee engagement is now significantly higher than industry norms. Our guest experience rating of our restaurants has improved 17 percentage points. And our investors have been rewarded by a 412% increase in our stock price.
In summary, the paradox proved true at Popeyes. We chose a purpose higher than ourselves; we led for the sake of our franchise owners. That decision has led to superior performance results, far better than the industry at large. Today our performance is viewed as remarkable, and if it continues, it may well be remembered as a legacy among peers.
Are you working on becoming a remembered and remarkable leader?
Will your purpose for leadership have you calling out orders from the comfortable porch of Mt. Vernon, while taking in the beautiful view of the Potomac and building your personal wealth?
Or will your leadership be in the valley with the people entrusted to you, leading them with a noble purpose, ensuring that remarkable things happen for their”benefit? If you do this, you will be remembered fondly by the people you served?
I urge you to consciously choose the second.