I listened to Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks talk this week in Denver. He said he thought the most important trait of a leader is the ability to tell the truth, to be authentic. His example was how when he stepped back in as CEO the first thing he did was to apologize to his employees. He said he took his eye off the ball as Chairman and the company subordinated it’s core values (what he calls the “soul” of the company) to growth and stock price.

I wonder why it’s hard to be honest or even what that means in leadership and relationships? I chunk honesty down into these skills and the mastery to know when and to what degree to use them:

  1. Owning your part in the problem. How did you as a leader contribute to an issue? Equally important here is not taking credit for the successes – you are a small part of reason things go well.
  2. Expressing your emotions. Are you angry, scared, sad, happy, guilty?
  3. Revealing what’s really important to you. What core values are you trying to align with vs. being driven my your ego.
  4. Asking for what you want. Not what you think is a good idea or trying to get others to buy in or making a demand.

Being authentic is talking about what you believe in and care about. To do the four things above takes humility and vulnerablity. It also takes being willing to tell your own story, to reveal something about yourself.

Schultz told the story about growing up in Brooklyn and watching his father, who never made more than $20k a year, deal with getting injured on the job. There was not workers comp and he had no insurance. Schultz was only seven at the time but because of that experience he was committed to giving insurance to all Starbucks employees – part timers included.

He also shared how his mother “drilled into him” that he had to get out of Brooklyn and have a better life. He admitted to continuing to be driven by the insecurities planted by his mother. These stories reveal a lot about how Schultz leads and how he feels about his employees – he sees himself in everyone of them.

Do they teach this stuff in B School or do we need to sceen for Brooklyn childhoods in order to find authentic leaders who embody social responsiblity like Schultz does?