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Sometimes you stumble into learning opportunities (or reminders) when you least expect them. This past Sunday was one of those moments for me. What began as a normal morning of church service ended with a phenomenal conversation with Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeyes.  If you are not familiar with the transformation that has taken place over the past ~10 years at Popeyes, let me summarize a few points about the environment when she took over:

  • guest visits had been declining for years
  • restaurant sales and profit trends were negative
  • the company stock price had dropped from $34 in 2002 to $13
  • the brand was stagnant
  • relations between the company and its franchise owners were strained

To further set the stage, Bachelder had been fired from her previous role as President at KFC … and she was walking into an environment where she would be the 4th CEO in the past 7 years with Popeyes.  So during the conversation when she drew a comparison between leadership & Extreme Sports, you could certainly see where she was coming from. As product management leaders, I think we can all relate in our own ways!

But there was more to the Extreme Sports comparison that really caught my attention, something unexpected.  When you think of Extreme Sports, typically the words that come to mind are ‘crazy’, ‘adrenaline seekers’, ‘unnecessary risks’, even ‘death wish’.  But as Mrs. Bachelder points out, referencing a 2009 Psychology study by Brymer & Oades, there is also a correlation to a few leadership traits I post about on a frequent basis.

Extreme sports are leisure activities where a mismanaged accident or mistake would most likely result in death. Participants live in this realization every time they undertake their chosen activity. Participating at this level involves real fear and brings one in contact with nature at its most extreme. It is these points that act as frameworks for experiencing humility and courage.

The courage aspect seems fairly straight forward … the humility one not so much.  But the point made in the study essentially states ‘in order to be humble we have to be in contact with something greater than self’.

Which brings us back to the basis for how Cheryl Bachelder turned Popeyes around … success was not based upon what she did, it came down to trust between corporate and the franchisees.  And in order to build trust, corporate had to serve the franchisees.  And in order to serve others, you have to humble yourself.

Incidentally, I have found my next leadership book to read through … Dare to Serve by, you guessed it, Cheryl Bachelder

On a related note as I was thinking of ways to close this post appropriately, I had captured these thoughts when Nelson Mandela died back in December of 2013 (prior to this blog going live) … they are worth restating here.

I just stumbled across this Forbes article, and it finally crystallized the thoughts I had been struggling to put together after the passing of Nelson Mandela the other day. After reading the article, I felt compelled to bring to light one of the most fitting characterizations of servant leadership of our era.

Like many students of leadership, I have read countless books pertaining to the subject … from ‘Leadership Secrets of Attila’ the Hun by Wess Roberts, to the other end of the spectrum ‘Jesus: CEO’ by Laurie Beth Roberts, and many others in between. It was always the books focused more on servant leadership that caught my attention.

Defined by Robert Greenleaf in the early 1970s, the main principle of servant leadership suggests leaders are attentive to the concerns of their followers and empathize with them, including those with little power in a system. Servant leaders make others better by listening, through understanding and empathy, by being aware and especially being self-aware, through persuasion, through conceptualization or vision, by being a good steward, and through commitment to the growth of people and the greater community.

Given the impact Nelson Mandela had on his country, and the influence he exerted with the rest of the world, one indeed has to ask the question Why Isn’t Servant Leadership More Prevalent?