07/06/2010 11:37 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fire in the Belly: Lessons From a Caffeine Pusher

The oil spill in the Gulf is a tragedy; so too the continuing implosion of the world economy; and of course the Catholic Church's ongoing sex scandal and attempted cover-up. These are misfortunes of numbing scale, things whose only "silver lining" may be as metaphors, or object lessons for the future.

That's cold comfort -- but it's far from useless. These events were all preventable, and they were all the product of massive collusion, irresponsibility and bad behavior by leaders. Leaders who we expect -- and need -- to act morally, because the future of the species depends upon it. How many bad decisions did it take to destroy a good chunk of the Gulf of Mexico? Evaporate 7 trillion dollars of world capital? Embroil thousands of families in misery and betrayal?

When I bring this up at networking events or parties folks often shrug their shoulders. "This is the way it's always been," they say, then politely change the subject. They are half-right: human beings have been facing big problems for a very long time. What is different is the scale of destruction that amoral or immoral leaders inflict on the world today, as opposed to leaders alive 100 or 1000 years ago. Developing more good leadership skills in more people may be the most important issue facing us as a species.

Not all leaders have lost their way. The other day I was heartened to hear Howard Schultz talk about how a key shareholder asked Schultz to eliminate health care for all Starbucks employees.

The savings to the company would have been enormous; last year Starbucks spent over $300 million on health care. The investor tried to make it easy for Howard, saying that he never had more cover to cut health care, and no one would criticize him, considering the financial pressures facing the company.

Schultz wasn't having it. "Do you want to kill the company and kill the trust the company stands for?" he said. "There is no way I will cut health care. If that's what you want us to do you should sell your stock."

What kind of fire in the belly does it take to turn down a $300 million dollar quick fix? How do we develop leaders with backbone or the fire in the belly the kind that Schultz demonstrated? I'm convinced that's the only way to avoid another BP, another Wall Street meltdown, maybe even another useless war.

Perhaps there are clues in the way other cultures dealt with struggle, war, challenge and survival. Sun-tzu's classic The Art of War begins:

War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin... Therefore appraise it in terms of the five fundamental elements... The first of these factors is moral influence.

How can "moral influence" be applied to our own daily interactions with our community, whether it be business or social networks, online or off? How do we develop moral influence?

Before we open our mouths to promote our new product at a conference, or bring up a new idea at our local PTA meeting, we can ask ourselves a few questions:

"Is what I am about to say true?"

"Do I really care about it?"

"Will it bring benefit to others as well as myself?"

If the answer to these questions is "no," then don't open your mouth. (As my writing partner Max says, "Leave lying to the professionals.")

What moral force allowed Schultz to tell his shareholder to take a hike? Schultz intuitively knows that the core of his company is the bond of trust between himself and his employees -- that they must rise or fall together -- and to sever that trust was to cut his own throat. He did more than just feel that his actions were right; he acted on those feelings. That is the essence of moral influence.

There is interesting research that indicates a relationship between moral influence and positive company performance. In his book The New Leaders, Daniel Goleman talks about what distinguishes some of the best and worst performing American companies.
What he discovered was that leaders who had a high level of self-deception were much more likely to be from poorly performing companies and those leaders who demonstrated high levels of self-awareness were associated with high performing companies.

What about Starbucks? When Schultz regained control of the company two years ago the pundits were saying that Starbucks was on a death march and McDonalds would soon kill what remained of the Starbucks fading network. Schultz seems to have turned around the spiral of decline. He reports that in the last year Starbucks has established 30,000 new points of distribution for it's products. So, at least in this case doing the right thing leads to a happy ending and we could sure use a few more of those.