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Servant Leadership with Howard Behar, Retired President, Starbucks

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

Howard Behar, author and retired Starbucks President, North America and Starbucks International is a disciple of servant leadership. He emphatically lives, breathes and teaches the principles every day and never stops learning about it. While there is a strong business case for taking care of your people at work, he shares that it's really about living your values as a human being. Enjoy!

When and where did we first meet?

My first memory of you was at Starbucks in 1990. You seemed like a kid, just a baby. You were in HR and it seems like only yesterday, only it was a million years ago. You are the same today as you were then – full of energy, passionate and fun.

How did you become so passionate about servant leadership and why have you made it your life’s work?

I was in my mid-20s and early in my career. I always loved people and you seldom found me without a smile on my face. But, I was unconsciously competent – I didn’t know what I was doing or how I was doing it. One day, a mentor gave me a pamphlet titled “The Servant as Leader” by Robert K. Greenleaf. I read the pamphlet 100 times. I was so curious and wanted to learn more. I’d never heard the words before but knew I was doing it. At that point, I decided to become a student of servant leadership.

That journey changed my life completely because I first needed to learn how to serve myself. I needed to understand who I am, what my values are and how they affect others. It meant getting rid of negative self-talk. Then, I needed to evaluate if my values and principles that I applied to myself applied to people that worked with me. And I found out that it worked.

I became a true servant leader after a lot of practice, learning from my mistakes and when I wasn’t showing up at my best. I still study it today and mostly as it relates to myself and family.

At its essence, what is servant leadership?

At its essence, the idea is that we, as leaders, are here to serve not be served. Our role is to help people accomplish what they want in their lives and then they will naturally help us accomplish what we want in our business. If you don’t help people first, they won’t help you. Think about it as if it was your family. Is your spouse there to serve you or are you there to serve them? The only way to have a good relationship is to be in service of others. If you want to be the boss at home, it doesn’t work. Being a servant leader takes humbleness, authenticity and vulnerability. Your primary purpose as a leader is to help people on their life journey – to become better people, employees and human beings. Then they contribute to your organization.

I’ve read a few different servant leadership frameworks out there. Which one, if any, do you subscribe to?

I don’t subscribe to any one framework. It’s really about my values and how I show up. Pick one you like and use it. You don’t even have to use the term “servant leadership”. Think of what kind of leader you want to be (and not be) and what actions those leaders demonstrate. I encourage people to read, read, read about all kinds of leadership. Read about autocratic leaders whose philosophy is “you’re here to serve me.” One time I had to come in and coach a group of leaders that had turned from a “we” organization to a “me” organization. They were not getting the team or business results they needed either. We did a reset of servant leadership principles to get them back to their values. Autocratic leadership works well when you are in a burning building but 95% of the time, the servant leadership model works better.

Tell me a recent story about when you’ve seen servant leadership principles in action.

One of the best servant leaders in the retail business was Jim Senegal of Costco. I know from personal experience because I had a nephew that worked there that needed a lot of support. I watched what they did to take care of him over a long, protracted period of time and could tell that Jim really cared about his people. Not to mention, Costco has outperformed Sam’s Club financially. I don’t think being a servant leader entitles you to business success, but you will be personally successful because you’ll be living your values.

Another example is the Container Store when it was led by Kip Tindell. They have incredibly low turnover for a retail store. Kip made sure his people were paid well and he took care of his people. He was committing to helping them grow as human beings which made people want to stay and work there.

Microsoft under Satya Nadella is another example. Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were antithesis of servant leaders – they yelled and screamed at their people. People left the company because they didn’t want to be abused any more. The company lost 10-15 years of potential success and business results suffered because they couldn’t keep people around. Satya changed the whole dynamic and made it about people. It totally turned the company around and people want to work there again.

What gets in the way of leaders embodying servant leadership principles?

The #1 thing is fear - fear of loss of control, fear of failure, fear of loss in general. To be a servant leader, you have to be willing to be vulnerable and not put up a shell. Leaders that are not authentic, are manipulative, are not truthful or withhold information aren’t servant leaders. They have to do work on their values first and, if they value being an asshole, at least be an honest asshole and own it instead of trying to portray something different.

What’s one or two things a leader can do to get better at serving those they work with?

Listen with an open mind. One of my favorite quotes is “compassionate emptiness”. This means being compassionate with the person but empty of solutions, which is hard to do. You can’t solve your people’s problems all the time but you can listen and ask questions and help them get there. As a servant leader, you need to focus on where they want to go, not where you want them to go. The other thing to get better at serving others is making sure you do your own work first. Identify your values, your personal mission statement and your goals in life and then make sure they match up in your organization. Without knowing who you are how can you help anyone else?

Anything else you'd like to add?

Every journey begins with a step and you need to take the first step to being a servant leader to learning about yourself. Put yourself to work.

Now for the lightning round so we can learn more about you.

  • Leadership book you’ve read recently: The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu

  • How often you post about servant leadership on LinkedIn: Every day, five days a week. An organization you currently serve: I’m on the board on Biller Family Foundation. They serve other organizations to help them accomplish what they want and help people grow and be productive in their lives through job skills training.

  • Favorite birthday present ever received: For my 75th birthday, I was really sick and in a hospital bed when my wife Lynn delivered 700 birthday cards from people from all over the world. It was the best birthday present of my whole life.

  • Standard coffee beverage: Triple tall americano every day, maybe two.

  • Favorite coffee: Ethiopia Harrar

To learn more about Howard Behar, visit or follow him on LinkedIn - he has a lot to say.

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