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: