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What Papa John’s can teach all businesses about marketing & leadership

Bad leadership can be a cancer, infecting employees’ communication, production and ability to perform.

4 min read

Brands & Campaigns



John Schnatter may have stepped down from his position as Papa John’s chairman in July after the public learned that he had used a racial slur on a conference call, but he’s still taking the brunt of the blame for the company’s poor performance. Schnatter points the finger at current Papa John’s CEO Steve Ritchie, claiming a newfound culture of intimidation has caused sales to slump. According to Schnatter, the Papa John’s leadership is being “vindictive and controlling,” with “rot at the top” in the company culture.

Schnatter, who recently filed his second lawsuit against Ritchie, is going after his former co-workers to deflect pending allegations and is biding his time in a back-and-forth game with current company leadership. If, as Schnatter claims, his words were taken “out of context,” it still does not explain the company’s declining sales. Papa John’s has been doing things to mediate the public’s perception of its brand since Schnatter’s racist language became public knowledge, but that still doesn’t posit Schnatter’s comments caused a decline in sales.

CNN reports, “Ritchie went on a listening tour, mandated bias training for all employees, and promised to increase diversity among staff. The company also launched a social campaign acknowledging customers’ concerns.”

Yet bad leadership can be a cancer, infecting employees’ communication, production and ability to perform. “Vindictive and controlling” leadership causes employees to lose trust in their company, so if there is any truth to Schnatter’s allegations, Papa John’s may still have a long road to redemption.

In “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” author Patrick Lencioni states that the foundation of trust boils down to the idea that co-workers won’t use privileged information against one another. When an organization has vindictive leaders, however, employees operate in fear.

The issue often goes beyond leadership and extends into company culture. If a leader realizes that his company culture is unhealthy, he has only three options: follow suit, leave the company or change the culture. Those who elect to change the company culture have to decide who is going to spearhead the internal overhaul. Papa John’s, for instance, would need to implement a top-down cultural shift to make employees feel valued and connected to the work they do.

Specific leadership styles differ exponentially, and each person has his own idea of how a company should run. From dictatorships to democracies, from transformational leaders to partners, one of the most important qualities of a leader is having the right leadership style for the company the individual is leading. It is important to note, however, that getting promoted to a management role does not make someone a leader. Leadership and management are different entities.

No matter what level someone has ascended to in his company hierarchy, the individual should always seek additional training and ways to grow. Executives need to constantly asses their leadership quality, their styles, how they communicate and how they empower, in addition to pinpointing their visions for their companies, striving to become better leaders and making a positive impact on company culture. If executives assume they have leadership to lord over others based on a title, then they are missing the mark by a long shot.

The back-and-forth finger pointing between company leaders at Papa John’s is embarrassing from an employee standpoint, especially if those employees once believed in the company and their mission. When company infighting takes place in a public arena, employees can be left confused, lost, scared and without direction. Employees may wonder if their jobs are secure and if the company has staying power — this job uncertainty can prompt employees to leave the company and seek employment with more stable corporations.

On the other hand, being a company executive entails a unique set of challenges. Leaders experience rejection, loneliness, pressure and mental and physical fatigue, and, in some cases, the job can take a toll on their families. Being a leader might be glamorous, but the role takes sacrifice. This is why leaders need to undergo continuous training to stay up to par.

Nicole Antoinette Smith is a full-time Lecturer at Ohio University in the College of Business as well as the Master’s in Business Analytics, teaching data analytics, information systems, and project management courses. She specializes in data strategy, strategic planning, process improvement, program development, and project management. Nicole Antoinette provides management consulting services under her company (Nicole Antoinette Consulting) using seven proprietary business methodologies.

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