Leaders who use their life stories–Howard Schultz of Starbucks

Leaders who use their life stories–Howard Schultz of Starbucks

As I wrote recently, I plan to give, from time to time, examples of “leading by autobiography”, from leaders who use their personal stories of identity to influence their worlds.

So, let’s review some of the basic building blocks of this phenomenon of leading by autobiography.

Of course, we all have our life stories. We are shaped by the events of our lives–by our childhoods, our education, environments, the people we encounter, or the decisions we make.

However, beyond being shaped by their past, most of the successful leaders I have coached or studied seem to use their stories in very specific ways. First, they develop a skill at processing their life experience, and through processing that experience they come to understand their life lessons.

Then, they lead and inspire by teaching those lessons to others, actively using stories from their lives that explain the values and principles they live by. When we hear these stories, we understand where their values come from, why they see the world the way they do, and why they have come to do things the way they do. In a business context, we often learn–through their personal stories–something of their vision for our common future, their view of who we are, what we stand for, and where we are going.

The tale of a father’s accident: In the case of Howard Schultz, founder and CEO of Starbucks, one of the principles by which he runs his business has its roots in a childhood memory. Starbucks has always provided generous health care benefits, particularly by US standards, to all of its employees, even part-timers who work as little as 20 hours a week. When asked why the do this for more than 160,000 people, at great cost to the company, Schultz talks of growing up in a poor neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

Schultz’s father was a blue collar worker who held a variety of jobs and never made more than $20,000 a year. One day, in the winter of 1961 when Howard was seven years-old, he was playing outside the family apartment when his mother called him inside. When he entered, he found his father lying on the couch in a full leg cast. The elder Schultz had fallen on the ice while working as a diaper-service delivery driver, breaking his ankle and his hip.

At that time, sick leave and disability assistance were rare commodities in the world of blue-collar employment. As Schultz relates, his father lost his job, along with any health care benefits for all family members. His mother, seven months pregnant, could not go to work, and the family had little to fall back on. As a result, they were literally having difficulty putting food on their table each day.

Now, I am certain that this young boy of seven was not dreaming of running a large company one day. But, this childhood memory did lead directly to Schultz’s desire to make Starbucks the first American company to provide the highest quality health care to all full-time and part-time workers. As Schultz describes: “My inspiration comes from seeing my father broken from the thirty terrible blue-collar jobs he had over his life, where an uneducated person just did not have a shot.”

Stories of identity can become symbols: In fact, this story has become something of a symbol for Starbucks, a story of who we are and why we do things the way we do. As Schultz describes:

“That event is directly linked to the culture and the values of Starbucks. I wanted to build the kind of company my father never had a chance to work for, where you would be valued and respected, no matter where you came from, the color of your skin, or your level of education. Offering health care was a transforming event in the equity of the Starbucks brand that created unbelievable trust with our people. We wanted to build a company that linked shareholder value to the cultural values we create with our people.”

Howard Schultz is an excellent example of someone who leads with his personal stories of identity. He has processed his life experience and integrated it into his worldview, his values, and his actions. Today, he is eloquent and inspiring when he tells tales of past events and how has shaped his ideas about leadership and corporate management.


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