The Greatest Leaders Sleep in Parking Lots

by Jon Acuff

How do you recognize a great leader when you see one? Jon Acuff describes his day with Dan Cathy from Chick-Fil-A: 

“Jon, do you want to camp out in a Chick-fil-A parking lot in Pennsylvania this week?”

That was a question Dan Cathy, the President of Chick-fil-A, asked me on the phone one night. We were working on a few ideas together and, as he headed out the door for the trip, he thought he’d see if I wanted to tag along.
Why was Dan Cathy, one of the leaders of a multibillion dollar company, flying north from his home in Atlanta?
Because great leaders sleep in parking lots.
Chick-fil-A was opening a new store and, over the years, they have turned this experience into a celebration. They give prizes to the first people in line and provide community outreach and a wildly fun first day of business. And there’s Dan Cathy.
That guy in the tent next to you? The one playing the trumpet and laughing along with the crowd? He’s the Chief Operating Officer.
You see Dan, like a lot of great leaders, knows that the higher you rise in an organization the further away from your customers you get. Each rung up the corporate ladder carries you away from the real people you’re serving.
The tendency is to insulate yourself with high-level managers who report what the mid-level managers reported based on what the low-level managers reported from the customer service team who actually interacted with the customers.
This happens in churches and corporations across the country. (Substitute high-level manager with “campus pastor” or “associate pastor” and CEO with “senior pastor.”)
Certainly, realities of scale are at play here. If you lead a 10,000 person church, you’re not going to be able to individually counsel each one of those 10,000 people. Burning out our leaders isn’t the goal. But if you’re not careful, as Andy Stanley has previously warned, you’ll end up retreating into your office away from everyone.
You’ll get disconnected from your company or your congregation.
You’ll start to see people as numbers or, worse, as nuisances.
You’ll lose your passion for what led you into leadership in the first place.

That’s one of the things that always puzzled me about Dave Ramsey. For 20 years, he’s been sharing financial wisdom with people. He’s sold millions of books, spoken at hundreds of events and built a massive company. Other leaders I’ve met at his level don’t still have the same passion for what they’re doing. How has Dave remained so connected to his audience over the last two decades?
The reason is so simple that it’s embarrassing I took almost two years of working side by side with him to figure it out.
Dave stays connected to his audience because he spends 15 hours talking to them every week.
Each day, he does a three-hour call-in radio show.
When a 38-year-old mom of two calls in to talk about the ruthless cancer that stole her husband and the financial challenges she’s facing, guess who answers that call? Dave.
When an entire family calls in on a Friday to scream that they’re debt free, guess who screams alongside them? Dave.
When there’s a commercial break during his radio show, guess who’s in the lobby listening to stories, taking pictures, and thanking people for visiting? Dave.
Dan plays the trumpet in parking lots.
Dave answers your phone call.
Both are leaders of massive organizations, but both are living a really simple truth:
Great leaders don’t build platforms to escape from people; they build platforms to serve people.

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