If you're just getting wind of the latest race-related debacle, it involves two black men arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia last Thursday.

The short version: They came in, asked to use the restroom, and were denied access because they hadn't shown their patronage and ordered anything. They then sat down to wait for a third party meeting them there -- Andrew Yaffe, who is white.

According to The New York Times, "they were eventually asked to leave, and when they declined, an employee called the police." (That employee no longer works for the store.)

The problem? No crime was committed, even though they were cuffed and hauled away for suspicion of trespassing. "What did they get called for?" asked Yaffe upon arriving, referring to the police. "Because there are two black guys sitting here meeting me?" 

Even the prosecutor's office that reviewed the case later admitted there was "a lack of evidence that a crime was committed" and declined to charge the men.

Sensing the urgency of a racial profiling situation quickly spiraling out of control, Kevin R. Johnson, the chief executive of Starbucks, did what every good leader does when faced with a PR crisis. He sprung into action, on a Saturday.

Here are three things he did right that were textbook leadership.

1. He genuinely apologized as his first course of action

Not only did Starbucks issue a company apology on Twitter Saturday afternoon, Johnson personally released a statement later in the day in which he called the situation a "reprehensible outcome."

"I'm writing this evening to convey three things," said Johnson. "First, to once again express our deepest apologies to the two men who were arrested with a goal of doing whatever we can to make things right."

On Sunday, Johnson again apologized to the two men via a video posted on the official Starbucks website. "I want to begin by offering a personal apology to the two gentlemen who were arrested in our store," he stated. "What happened in the way that incident escalated, and the outcome, was nothing but reprehensible--and I'm sorry."

He added, "I want to apologize to the community in Philadelphia, and to all my Starbucks partners. This is not who we are, and it's not who we're going to be. We are going to learn from this and we will be better for it."

Johnson even went as far as saying he hoped to meet the two men in person to offer a "face-to-face apology." 

2. He admitted fault and took ownership of the problem

"Starbucks stands firmly against discrimination or racial profiling," Johnson said. "Regretfully, our practices and training led to a bad outcome -- the basis for the call to the Philadelphia Police Department was wrong. Our store manager never intended for these men to be arrested and this should never have escalated as it did."

Here was the clinching statement that elevated his leadership: "These two gentlemen did not deserve what happened, and we are accountable. I am accountable." (Emphasis mine.)

With the public outcry of discrimination getting louder each day and others calling for the store manager's job, Johnson acknowledged a potentially deeper and systemic management issue that places the blame squarely on his shoulders.

Demonstrating the leadership strength of humility and redirecting the media's attention on him, Johnson stated: "Now there's been some calls for us to take action on the store manager," said Johnson. "I believe that blame is misplaced. In fact, I think the focus of fixing this: I own it. This is a management issue, and I am accountable to ensure we address the policy and the practice and the training that led to this outcome."   

3. He pledged to take action and fix the problem at all cost

Johnson vowed to investigate and to "make any necessary changes to our practices that would help prevent such an occurrence from ever happening again." While that can be merely lip service by an executive to assuage tension and anger, and protect the brand, Johnson instantly put the wheels of change in motion by scheduling meetings with city officials.

"Now, today I've been on the phone--with the mayor, with the police commissioner, and other leaders in the community. I'm looking forward to spending the next two days meeting and visiting with them personally," said Johnson in his company video statement. He added, "And you have my commitment: We will address this. And we will be a better company for it."

Update: Starbucks just announced that it will close more than 8,000 of its stores on the afternoon of May 29. During that time, nearly 175,000 of its employees will participate in racial-bias training designed to prevent discrimination in their stores.

Published on: Apr 17, 2018