A New Approach to Leadership: Podcast #28

Zach-ThomasToday I’m excited to share with you a conversation I recently had with my good friend Zach Thomas. He is an accomplished leader who studied at West Point, served as a Ranger instructor, started his own business, and now leads young people at a Chick-fil-A. We discussed a new approach to leadership called freedom leading and I wanted to share his insights with you. Here are some notes from our discussion…

Tell us a little about your background and experience with leadership.

I serve as an owner/operator of a Chick-fil-A in the Atlanta area. I started my leadership journey as a cadet at West Point and studied military art and science. I served as a Platoon Leader and Ranger instructor. After my military career, I attended Seminary and served as a college and singles pastor at a local church. In 2005, I started a company called Ranger Coffee that experienced great growth. In my time working with Andy Christianson at Life Impact Ministries, my leadership journey became focused on coaching and mentoring, which led me to becoming an operator at Chick-fil-A. I am thankful to say there are quite a few leaders in my military experience that have taught me how to motivate and inspire. An infantry officer has to led people more than anyone else. I was taught to lead by example, and it’s this foundation that has led me to become the kind of leader I am today.

We discussed a new approach to leading that is not only empowering to teams, it’s very attractive to the emerging generation. Take a few minutes to describe this new approach and how you came to this conclusion.

A few years back, I was walking across the street to my store and was hit by a car. I had very little physical damage but suffered a major concussion. I spent a month on my couch recovering, and in that time, I started thinking about what my future held and how I wanted to lead from that point. There are two principles that really led me to where I am today. I call it ‘Freedom Leading.’

Freedom Leading

  1. I would be disillusioned to think that my team members will work for me for the rest of their lives. It is in both our best interests for my primary goal to be to help them accomplish their dreams and become the best versions of themselves.
  2. A team member or employee motivated by fear, force or any other form of manipulation is not that same as a team member motivated by love or the knowledge that someone cares about them.

It seems we have seen a continuum of leadership styles across the board. As time has marched on, people want to be a part of the leadership team, and we’ve had to adjust styles. You call it Freedom Leading — building trust, giving freedom, and allowing them to flourish. Talk about the product of Freedom Leading and what it tends to produce in a team member.

As I adopt this new mindset, I ultimately want all of my team members to transition to the Freedom Leading style. My method of leadership is through building trust and, as their maturity grows, giving them more freedom. Over time, this can lead to permanent life transformation. I feel like that is my calling in life: to help people become the best versions of themselves.

Give me some words that describe the kind of person who is under this Freedom Leading. What are they thinking or doing that is different than someone who is under manipulative leadership?

They realize this is not just a job; this person and organization cares about me. ‘I’m a part of something else.’


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I’m guilty of this less than healthy approach to leadership. It seems like we have gone from this military commander style — control and demanding loyalty — to a CEO model that is really about vision for the organization. Then we became entrepreneurs, and even if the leader was messy, they were on the cutting edge and innovative. By the 90s, I really saw leaders as a coach. The metaphor I’ve used to describe this is called the Poet Gardener. A poet looks at the culture and writes beautiful poetry — they wordsmith what they are feeling or thinking. A poet leader sits down with a team of leaders, not just followers, and just like a gardener goes out to the soil and knows that their primary job is to grow the plants in that soil, this leader sees their primary job as growing the people under their care. They stay, not because they have to, but because they want to.

I have discovered the goal is with every team member. Moving back to my family farm, I’ve learned a lot about seasons and my personal growth. We take a step back and look at this entire spectrum of leadership; we need all kinds of leadership styles. When a new team member starts a job, they may be motivated by fear for the first few weeks, but as my trust in them increases and their maturity increases, they get more freedom. Interestingly, discipline isn’t really necessary anymore.

A lot of our listeners work with students and young people, and the truth is, some students aren’t ready for a Poet Gardener style. They need the command and control style at first because they aren’t ready for all the freedom. So you do need to migrate towards this, but it does take time. If a listener were to say this concept makes sense, what are the action steps that need to be taken to shift toward this new way of thinking?

I think that it starts with perspective. ‘What is my perspective, and what is the perspective of those working with me?’ There are seasons in a business, and things change. So what systems do you leave in place and how do you cast vision towards love or freedom?

For any of our listeners who believe they may have formed bad leadership habits unwittingly, what can they do to turn the ship around as leaders themselves?

If I could ask that in the form of a question, I’d say: What is your motivation? I think it starts with you. Why are you motivated to do what you do? Is it fear or is it love? Additionally, what do you think people who are following you are motivated by? Is it fear or is it love?

I didn’t prepare you for this, but do you have a story of a relationship in which this shift in leadership style produced great dividends?

One story really ties things together. I had a team member who was part of my college ministry. When I got the role as a Chick-fil-A owner/operator, he wanted to come work for me. He and his wife moved, and I hired both of them. During that process, he began to develop a sense of entitlement. My pendulum had swung too far in the area of freedom with him, so I had to swing it back. I had to say, “You know I love you, you know I care about you, but the reality is this is not going to work the way it’s working now.” It’s a tough decision to say you can’t work here anymore. I told him he needed to join the army and grow up… and that’s what he did.

His wife called me right before he graduated from Basic Combat Training, wanting me to come to his graduation ceremony. I went, and I remember standing in the parking lot as he looked at me and said, “I hated you for a while, but you did what you needed to do. You held a standard you needed to hold, and you helped me grow and mature. But it came down to the fact that I knew you loved me and I knew that you cared about me.” He is doing really well now. He served several tours and is now looking to start his own business. He is like a son to me now.

You had the freedom leader heart but you still did the tough thing. I love when you can combine those two.



I hope to see you at our 2015 National Leadership Forum. Here are the highlights of our forum last June:

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A New Approach to Leadership: Podcast #28