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Lessons on Servant Leadership with Retired Starbucks President Howard Behar

Howard Behar and I grew up 2,500 miles apart and our careers took us down paths that never crossed until earlier this year. But one of the first stories he told me during our recent LinkedIn Live conversation just happened to be about something we had in common: Howard and I both spent a good bit of our childhoods in grocery stores.

My family ran a neighborhood grocery in Pittsburgh until my father took a job as an assistant manager at a K-mart. Howard’s parents were the mom-and-pop owners of a grocery store in Seattle.

This, as it turns out, was more than just a mildly interesting coincidence. The similarities in how we were raised also yielded similar values and outlooks on leadership, and that was the focus of our discussion on the February episode of Off the Rak, my monthly interview series on LinkedIn.

Working in a grocery store can teach you about things like inventory, supply and demand, managing work schedules, marketing, and pricing, but it’s ultimately a business that teaches the value of people. And my parents, like Howard’s, preached the importance of seeing customers as something more than a faceless wallet pushing a cart — they saw them as friends and neighbors. As fellow human beings.

That view of people was central to Howard’s approach to business and leadership during a career that saw him rise to become president of Starbucks during it’s most formative and high growth years. But as he made clear during our conversation, servant leadership applies to everyone regardless of the industry. Having spend most of my career in real estate and logistics-related industries, I can confirm that view.

Howard, whose books (The Magic Cup and It’s Not About the Coffee) should be on your to-read list, told a wonderful story about how his father taught this lesson by example.

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One day while working in the store, Howard’s father called him over and asked him to go get some fruit. When he returned, his father took the fruit and stealthily put it into the grocery sack of the customer who was at the register. When the customer left, Howard told his dad he forgot to ring up the charges for the fruit, but his dad said it wasn’t an oversight.

“Howard, some things we do just because it’s the right thing to do,” his father told him. “These people are our friends, and right now they are having a tough time. So it’s just my way of helping.”

Howard took that lesson and countless others from his parents into his professional career. It paid off for him but more importantly for everyone around him. With the help of his leadership, Starbucks grew into a global company that now has more than 35,000 locations in 84 countries. He wasn’t handing out free fruit to employees or customers who were having a hard time. But he did earn a reputation for respecting people for who they are and doing the right thing, even when it was the hard thing.

“Loving your people is where it all begins,” he told me. “That’s the essence of servant leadership.”

When you love people, you will treat them with respect, you will trust them as if they are worthy of trust until they prove you shouldn’t trust them, and you will earn their respect and their trust. This isn’t always easy to do in an era when workforces are spread out and in-person interactions are often limited. But if Howard could do it with hundreds of thousands of employees spread around the world, anyone can do it.

The only downside to my discussion with Howard was that we had some technical difficulties that occasionally made the audio unclear. If you watched and listened, hopefully you still were able to soak in the valuable lessons he shared. And hopefully you will join me in March when my guest will be Matt Khourie, the recently retired CEO of Trammell Crow. Until then, find some fruit and share it with a friend.


  1. Randy Clark

    I too grew up working in my Mom and Dad’s corner grocery store and have so many stories and lessons. Thanks for sharing this.

    Reply to Randy Clark

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