Monday, September 6, 2010

Servant Leadership at Starbucks

The most impressing statement in articles I have read was De Pree’s (1992) “Above all, leadership is a position of servanthood.” This one word ‘servanthood’ explains what a leader is; a servant. Because leaders are not people who just order or dictate employers, punish or award performance. Otherwise the term ‘manager’ would be more appropriate when defining that kind of people. Leadership heavily involves building relationships, understanding beneficiaries’ (personnel, board, customers etc.) needs, feelings, emotions and values. Because, in order to serve people, just understanding these features is not enough. A leader should possess empathy that is the ability to share another person's feelings and emotions as if they were his/her own. As Pagonis (2001) implies “No one is a leader who can’t put himself or herself in the other person’s shoes” empathy is an essential feature for leadership. Zaleznik (1997) also clarifies it saying that “Empathy is not simply a matter of paying attention to other people”.

This is not a new idea. The Holy Bible tells us that Christ showed a good example of servant leadership saying that “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet” (John 13:14), and also remember that George Washington signed his letters; "Your most humble and obedient servant."

There are some business stories which show us that leaders who care their employees’ benefits exist. The story of Starbucks is one of the good examples of servant leadership. Howard Behar, the former president of Starbucks Coffee Company North America and Starbucks Coffee International, tells the leadership style at Starbucks in his book: It's Not About The Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks (2007). Lichtenwalner (2009) briefly summarizes this example:

Howard Behar and Dave Olsen spoke of many challenges they faced during the rapid expansion of Starbucks. However, in spite of many challenges, they never lost sight of their values. For example, although there was often pressure to reduce their prices, the company needed these prices to maintain commitments to their partners. The prices for Starbuck’s products ensured their ability to provide the same health insurance to anyone working 20 hours or more a week that they provided to the CEO. As Mr. Behar said, “people forget what’s in that cup of coffee”, cheaper cups of coffee elsewhere may not contain those same benefits for the person serving the coffee. But this is nothing compared to the challenge they faced while dealing with a tragedy in 1997.

Behar shared the story of when three Starbucks employees were murdered in DC during a botched robbery. The event clearly still touched him deeply. He explained how Howard Schultz, CEO, did not call Public Relations or legal counsel. Instead, Schultz dropped everything, flew to the store and spent the entire week visiting with the families and employees in the area. As Dave Olsen, Senior Vice President of Culture and Leadership Development said, leadership is “largely about having courage to do the right thing”. Or, as Behar said, “Leading with compassion never stops…there’s no time off”.

Measurable Success from Servant Leadership in Troubled Times:

While other food services companies experience turnover in the 200% to 400% range annually, Starbucks sees only about 65% at the high end (lower for certain positions). The company touts many achievements including Best Companies to Work For, Best Corporate Citizens, Most Admired Companies and Most Ethical Companies awards. All this from an organization with over $10 Billion in sales annually.

Furthermore, Howard Schultz, chairman and chief global strategist of Starbucks Coffee, briefly summarizes his servant leadership perspective (Stafford, 2004):

“We have to lead with our hearts. In business, as in life, we each should have an internal compass that guides our decisions, an instinctive understanding of what matters most in this world. For me, it’s not profits, or sales, or number of stores, but the passion, commitment, and enthusiasm of a dedicated group of people.”

Finally, I have found this positive example important, for it shows the relation between leadership and servanthood. Serving well creates a chain reaction. A leader serves the employees, then they increase their commitment and quality of the job, so they can serve customers well, customers enjoy the service and value the company, so both the reputation and profits of the company soar.

I hope you enjoyed this first post of the semester. Thanks for reading.

Further reading


Robert K. Greenleaf, Larry C. Spears. (1977). Servant Leadership: a journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Paulist Press. Can be previewed online at

Melrose, Ken. (1995). Making The Grass Greener On Your Side: a CEO's journey to leading by serving. Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc. Can be previewed online at


The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Website at:

The Modern Servant Leader. Website at:


De Pree, Max. (1992). “The Attributes of Leadership: A Checklist,” pp. 218-226. Leadership Jazz. NY: Dell.

Pagonis, William G. (2001). “Leadership in a Combat Zone,” HBR.

Zaleznik, Abraham. (May-Jun 1977). “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” HBR 55:3, 67-79.

Behar, Howard. (2007). It's Not About the Coffee: Leadership Principles from a Life at Starbucks. Portfolio Hardcover Publishing. ISBN: 1591841925 website at:

Lichtenwalner, Benjamin. (2009). 5 Examples of Leadership Success in Troubled Times. Retrieved from:,2

Stafford, Mike. (2004). Starbucks Servant-Leaders Pour Their Hearts Into It. The Servant Leader Newsletter. Retrieved from:


  1. Kivanc, I think you bring up a solid point about serventhood when you state, "Serving well creates a chain reaction". This statement fits perfectly with the attitude of Howard Behar and it also sheds light on the concept of "paying it forward".

    I think this concept is very important for any leader or manager due to the fact that there will always be a reciprocal to what occurs. Most individuals in a leadership position get caught up in other processes and forget this idea. For instance, take the Scharff article we just read on WorldCom...

    Their CEO, Bernie Ebbers, had a single-minded approach to leading a company and it ultimately set the company back for many years to come. Instead propelling WorldCom by focusing on serving others and paying it forward, he got caught up in making a profit through unethical means.

    Although a company may not see a profit right away with this servanthood approach, it will be successful in the long-run almost every time.

  2. Kivanc, this was a very interesting and insightful post. The concept of servant leadership seems contradictory, but it ties directly into our readings about how leaders must model the behavior that they want their followers to exhibit. Selznick states it this way, "The institutional leader... is primarily an expert in the promotion and protection of values." At Starbucks, the leaders want their employees to serve customers well because they value the company. What better way that for the leaders to initiate this behavior by first serving their employees well?

  3. Thanks for comments. Since companies consist of mostly employees, valuing the company also means valuing the employees. From this perspective, the way servant leaders run their companies is starting from caring about the employees first. Caring means meeting their needs, and those needs can be found out by using empathy. First, A leader should understand that the employees are human beings not robots. Yes they work for money and companies are not charities but for profits, but it's not an excuse for ignoring their value. Then, leaders should establish a culture which promotes an employee oriented environment and values. I can give Wegmans and Google as examples, for they always valued their employees first.

  4. Very interesting Kivanc. The quote from Mr. Schultz - "For me, it’s not profits, or sales, or number of stores, but the passion, commitment, and enthusiasm of a dedicated group of people,” reminds me of some key concepts discussed in "Good to Great" by Jim Collins.

    If anyone hasn't yet read this book for another class, I really recommend it, as many of the leadership themes discussed in our current readings compliment the author's points relative to organizational change, and corporate culture.

    Based on Mr. Schultz's leadership style, it sounds like Starbucks would be a great employer. I get the impression that everyone within the organization benefits from his efforts to develop a strong, people centered culture.

    Additionally, I'd like to learn more about how Starbucks has responded to challenges during the recent economic downturn. It would be useful to research if any changes in leadership practices have been implemented, and whether or not those changes will remain permanent.

  5. Kivanc- this was a very insightful post. I find it very interesting how you focused on servant leadership as the principle quality of a leader. It is so true, though. In all of the articles about traits, superiority and situations that lead to great leaders, I completely agree with you that servanthood is the one quality most people overlook, yet, it is so powerful.

    I think that in the current economic state of our country we will see more servant leaders arise...


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