Leader in the Crossfire

Though he has some competition, he doesn’t have much. Howard Schultz, founder and for decades chairman and chief executive officer of Starbucks, ranks high not just as one of America’s most successful businessmen ever, but as one of its best-intentioned. Above all, though he was not always as good as his word, from the start Schultz put great stock in being an employer who treated his employees carefully and considerately. In being a capitalist with a capacious heart.

In his book, Onward, Schultz returns frequently to this theme. He remembers his father being dismissed from his job after a workplace accident with no health-care coverage and no severance. He further recalls his father never finding “fulfillment or meaning in his work.” It made Schultz vow that if he ever was a “business leader,” he would do things differently. He would “build the kind of company” his father “never got to work for.” He would “create a unique community inside the company.” He would give his workers tasks “infused” with precisely the purpose and meaning of which his father was deprived.

Nor was Schultz content to confine his reformism to the private sector. Early this year he declared he was considering taking on Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, running himself as a centrist, independent candidate. While his foray into politics remained an embryonic effort, it was an indicator of Schultz’s interest in being a well-intentioned leader not only within Starbucks but without.

It is, then, not only an irony, but a sign of the times, that Schultz of all people has got caught in the crossfire of the unrest in Hong Kong – several Starbucks’ storefronts deliberately defaced in recent protests. To say he’s not the only one is to understate it. The recent brouhaha in which the National Basketball Association got ensnared is a vivid example of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s iron grip, which can seem now as if it’s tightening around us all. But Schultz – who has always presented himself as a leader with a conscience – is a special case. A case in which there is an obvious conflict between what presumably are his professional interests, Starbucks making more money than it already is, and his personal conscience, siding with democrats rather than autocrats.

In 2017, before Xi’s control was as complete as it is now, Schultz publicly declared his company would become less dependent on the U. S. market and more on the Chinese market: “China will become a much more important component of the financial results of Starbucks,” he confidently proclaimed. He was right, of course. Toward the end of 2019 are some 170 Starbucks outlets in Hong Kong – and some 4,000 in China. Moreover, by 2022 plans are to have at least 2,000 more. You do the math.

What’s a leader to do? On the one hand, a company to run with humongous numbers of customers in a country that is a tyranny. On the other hand, a conscience to consider that is being tested at every turn of the screw.

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