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Leadership Perspectives Blog
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<p><em>(Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)</em></p>

Chipotle: Taking a Bite Out of the Leadership Burrito

There’s nothing that sends a company’s name into the limelight like a scandal – safety or otherwise.

Chipotle, the beloved fast-casual burrito chain that touts the freshness of its fare, recently has undergone a public battering after E. coli outbreak and a separate norovirus outbreak.

The outbreaks have closed some stores and caused the company’s stock value to plummet.

Company Founder Steve Ells issued a public apology to consumers, in which he pledged to make the chain a leader in food safety.

“The fact that anyone has become ill eating at Chipotle is completely unacceptable to me and I am deeply sorry,” Ellis writes. “…I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize on behalf of all of us at Chipotle, and to thank our loyal customers who have stood by us through this difficult time.”

In his apology, Ellis goes beyond offering trite regret. Instead, he announces a commitment to a comprehensive food safety program, one that tackles not only its restaurants, but also its supply chain and the farms on which it relies.

“Throughout our supply chain, we are implementing high-resolution sampling and testing of many of our ingredients to prevent contaminants, including E. coli, from getting into our restaurants,” Ellis writes.

Chipotle completed a farm-to-fork risk assessment of all of its ingredients and its restaurants procedures and is working with its suppliers to improve their food safety programs. The company also is providing additional food safety training to its employees.

“I believe our restaurants are safer today than they have ever been,” Ellis writes. “The last 22 years have been an incredible journey and we are not going to shy away from this new challenge.”

Ellis has taken ownership of the safety fiasco at his company and made himself the public face of Chipotle. While this certainly doesn’t excuse the conditions that led to the outbreaks at those restaurants, it is encouraging to see a CEO admit there’s a problem and fix it.

How many times do we see leaders who don’t accept responsibility for the state of their company. Think Volkswagen, who blamed engineers for its emissions scandal, and General Motors, who claimed ignorance when its ignition switches were found to be faulty.

While Chipotle’s stock continues to fall, it did spike on two separate days – once when Ellis appeared on The Today Show to apologize for the outbreaks and again when he ran his apology letter as an ad in newspapers across the country. When the leader acted like a leader, people recognized it.

In apologizing, Ellis acknowledged the problem – instead of passing the blame or pleading ignorance – and was straightforward about the company’s plans to fix it. There’s a lot to be said for honesty – and for good leadership.

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