From the earliest days of Starbucks, I’ve been captivated by the art of leadership. I was mentored over three decades by Warren G. Bennis, the eminent professor and scholar on leadership. I’ve gathered insights from peers, and I’ve drawn inspiration from our 300,000 employees.
As a boy growing up in public housing in Brooklyn, I was told by my mother that I could be the first in my family to graduate from college. A scholarship and an entry-level job at Xerox created a path upward that was typical for many of my generation.
For too many Americans, the belief that propelled me, that I had the opportunity to climb the ladder of prosperity, has greatly diminished. I hear it from coast to coast as I sit with customers in our stores. Six in 10 Americans believe that the younger generation will not be better off than their parents. Millennials have never witnessed politics devoid of toxicity. Anxiety, not optimism, rules the day.
Despite the encouragement of others, I have no intention of entering the presidential fray. I’m not done serving at Starbucks. Although we have built an iconic brand while providing even part-time employees with access to health care, free college education and stock options, there is more we can do as a public company to demonstrate responsible leadership.
The values of servant leadership — putting others first and leading from the heart — need to emerge from every corner of American life, including the business community.
While Americans have diverse views in what they want from Washington, I reject the notion that our divided and dysfunctional government is merely a reflection of what the political class calls the red-blue divide. Too many of our political leaders are putting party before country, power before principle and cynicism before civility. The common purpose that created this great nation, which has united us in difficult moments, has gone missing.
Our country is in desperate need of servant leaders, of men and women willing to kneel and embrace those who are not like them. Everyone seeking the presidency professes great love for our nation. But I ask myself, how can you be a genuine public servant if you belittle your fellow citizens and freeze out people who hold differing views?
Every one of the candidates offers grand promises about new leadership and new solutions. But where do they stand on working with their rivals? Regardless of who wins the presidency, the odds of the same party controlling a filibuster-proof Senate are slim. If we want to turn the nation around, we have to act differently. Save for the most rabid partisans, most people don’t want one-party rule. They want Democrats and Republicans to work together.
Americans who are tired of politics as usual should demand a clear answer to a simple question from every candidate: What will you do to unite all of us?
Our country deserves a candidate courageous enough to select a member of the other party as a running mate. Our country deserves a president humble enough to see leadership not as an entitlement but as a privilege.
The speculation about my candidacy reminds me of a lesson from a great Jewish leader. A decade ago, I visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem with Nosson Tzvi Finkel, a widely respected rabbi in Israel. As we approached one of the holiest sites in Judaism, the rabbi halted about 10 yards away as a crowd of admirers gathered nearby. I beckoned him further.
“I’ve never been closer than this,” the rabbi told me. Astounded, I asked why.
“You go,” he said. “I’m not worthy.”