Howard Schultz and the Upward Spiral


I published a post on August 25th, called “Left or Right: a Void of Leadership”.  Several people commented on our Xavier Leadership Center discussion group on this.   Starbuck’s Howard Schultz has weighed in this month on this debate.     I’m not sure if you all see Mr. Schultz as a Ross Perot-type lunatic gadfly or as a serious American with an important message.

He has created a new organization called Upward Spiral where he is inviting people to take a pledge in favor of “citizenship over partisanship” and for executives to take a pledge to hire new employees to help “break the cycle of fear and uncertainty”.

Gadfly or not, Schultz seems to have enlisted some impressive supporters like AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, J.C. Penney Co. CEO Myron Ullman, Whole Foods Market Inc. Co-CEO Walter Robb and others to lend their names to the movement.

In an open letter, Schultz decries that “. . . like you, I am frustrated by our political leaders’ steadfast refusal to recognize [the failure of their leadership]”  He goes on to say further that “for every day they perpetuate partisan conflict and put ideology over country, America and Americans suffer from the combined effects of paralysis and uncertainty.”   In an August 15 missive, Schultz challenged corporate CEOs to commit to withhold campaign contributions to incumbents who act in ways that seem opposed to finding solutions to current economic problems.

I have been wondering about when American politics shifted to its current antagonistic – partisan state.  I am thinking it began to shift in 1994 after the Republican landslide victory in the national midterm election and they gained a majority of seats in the 104th Congress.  I think they saw for the first time that their uber-majority gave conservatives a chance to press an agenda on their own – without the need for compromise.

What is the leadership lesson in all this?

For sure, we all can identify with the feeling that having to compromise your personal views is difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming.  It is kind of the same issue facing company executives.  It is always far more efficient to make our own decisions and issue edicts that drive everyone else.  Efforts to be collaborative in creating a shared vision and plan are often cumbersome, and (to me at least) excruciatingly slow.   The upside of being autocratic is that it allows you to move fast.  The downside is that people do not understand, or commit to your vision as deeply as we would like.  We would argue that a collaborative and inclusive model is always more sustainable.

I think it is helpful to consider that there are always two sides to the coin (whether in the public or private sector).  There are always the “analytical problem” AND the “political problem”.  We need to solve both to have effective solutions.   We also know that in management, having the”right” answer is never enough.  The hard part is getting people to understand, support and commit.   That is the art of leadership.    We all recognize (I think) that the political side is the hard part.

While I am not a politician, it seems that in the public sector, the political side is even more important, and more tricky.  The problem is that without a common sense of what “success” looks like, it is inconceivable that we can solve anything.  If success looks only like I win, and you lose, that is classic definition of a zero sum game that never leads anyplace good.

In the private sector, this problem is solved when leaders cast a sufficiently compelling vision to unify divergent groups.  We have to suggest something that we can all want more than we want the things that were dividing us.

Perhaps this is once concept where our political leaders can take a lesson from the private sector.

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