Starbucks' Howard Schultz on Responsibility and Leadership

The company's chairman, president and ceo spoke to help celebrate the Harvard Business Review’s 90th anniversary.

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Angela Ahrendts

Photo By Dave Di Iulio

NEW YORK — Fairly early on in a Q&A session at Jazz at Lincoln Center to help celebrate the Harvard Business Review’s 90th anniversary, Starbucks Corp. chairman, president and chief executive officer Howard Schultz told the crowd, “I didn’t come here to depress you, but I came here to speak the truth.”

He wasn’t kidding. The need for bipartisanship, fiscal stability, leadership, job creation and a greater social consciousness were among the issues at which he hammered away in a talk with Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn. With the fiscal cliff looming, he said, “Why are we just 34 days away, when a year-and-a-half ago we all witnessed such a debacle and fracturing of leadership with the deficit ceiling? The S&P lowered the debt rating of the U.S. not because of the balance sheet of America, but because of the lack of confidence in leadership of America to solve America’s problems.”

Save German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Schultz didn’t call out specific leaders, though his displeasure with Beltway politics was clear. Asked afterward if he had heard from the White House in regard to his public outcry, the 59-year-old Schultz told WWD, “I don’t comment about that. Those conversations are private.”

Here is a recap of some of Schultz’s key points on Tuesday night.

“I have been fairly outspoken for the past 18 months, somewhat unorthodox and unprecedented for a ceo of a public company to, in a sense, criticize the government of the United States. I try to do it in a very civil and respectful way, asking and pleading for compromise and bipartisanship to try to realize that not only are the stakes high, but this is a significant crucible for the U.S. Never before in the history of the world has there been such a domino effect and as much connective tissue. We can be talking about how if Greece doesn’t maintain its position in the euro zone, if [Angela] Merkel doesn’t have the political courage to do in a sense what’s right because it will hurt her election, what will happen to the euro and what will happen to the rest of the world. We can spin around the globe and talk about the problems between Japan and China, the situation in Syria or Libya — we can go on and on. The fact is that every pinpoint has a significant downward spiral.”

“It would be catastrophic if two things happened — one, if the problem isn’t solved. I don’t think that will happen. [Two,] if there is a Band-Aid solution — if I had to make a bet, I would say that is probably what is going to happen. I think that is equally irresponsible for us to be sitting in a situation where we are facing $16 trillion in debt, 14 million people unemployed, 42 out of 50 states in America in a budget deficit, municipalities declaring bankruptcy — I could go on and on. I mean, right now we’re all dressed up sitting in New York City getting ready for the holiday season, but America is not the America our parents fought for and promised us. The issue in front of us as citizens, as businesses, as leaders is to understand we cannot embrace the status quo.”

“Whether you agree with that or not, at least there is a basis for honest, transparent dialogue and debate. That is what we need right now. We do not have the leadership of the country putting their feet in the shoes of the American people. They are in the shoes of their own party and the extremists. And that is a disaster.”

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