The recent incident where two African-American men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks was a deplorable example of the explicit racism that young black men experience across almost every aspect of their lives. On the heels of the recent shooting in Sacramento of an unarmed black man, Stephon Clark, it also serves as important reminder that people like me — white, male and preppy, for lack of a better description — have no clue of the indignities and fears other men experience — just because of the colour of their skin or their style of dress. Let’s be clear: there is no room in civilized society for this kind of double standard.
Another aspect of this case — one that is admittedly less significant to society but perhaps of interest to corporations and organizations — is how one person’s grievous error has created a public relations crisis for a global brand. In this way, the Starbucks incident reminds me of a powerful concept first articulated by a US military thinker — that of the “strategic corporal.”
The term was coined by General Charles C. Krulak in the title of a 1999 article in Marines Magazine about the “Three Block War” but the idea gained prominence during the second Iraq war.
Military strategists observed that the April 2004 revelation of prisoner abuse by handful of military guards at the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison had a more pronounced strategic impact on the perception of the occupation than any other effort; more generally, they realized that large strategic goals — the kind planned and executed by generals — could be suddenly compromised by mistakes made at the tactical level by much lower level soldiers. In other words, a corporal who usually oversees 5 to 10 grunts can have a greater strategic impact than the generals who command millions.
One of the reasons that the Abu Ghraib abuses resonated so deeply was that pictures capturing the indignities that these soldiers inflicted on the prisoners leaked out and then went around the world. Similarly, the video from this week’s incident — depicting two very calm black men being handcuffed in the familiar setting of Starbucks store — played a central role in turning this latest injustice into a justifiable social media firestorm.
This era of ubiquitous smartphones means that photo and especially video “reporters” are everywhere. If one of your employees does something egregiously wrong, chances are there will be someone around to record it — thus preserving it for eternity but also making it possible for the incident to go viral. Simply put, there is no such thing as a self-contained mistake anymore. Just as a small number of soldier-guards destroyed the US Army’s credibility in Iraq, one Starbucks manager can imperil the brand equity of a global coffee chain that has spent decades trying to cultivate a positive image.
The strategic corporal idea is, therefore, more relevant today than ever. What does this mean for you?
If you are the leader of an organization, you need to drive home that the responsibility to live the brand’s values goes all the way down the line. In fact, it’s the foot soldiers on the ground — the baristas and store managers in this case, and the customer-facing elements in all businesses — rather than the CEO who will have the greatest impact on how your company is perceived.
This adds a burden on front-line employees, but it should also demonstrate an obvious corollary: that the store clerks, cashiers and wait staff are, in fact, strategic assets as well as potential liabilities. Given the visibility they command with the customer, as well as the potential exposure to social media that their actions have, your most junior employees must be empowered so that their behavior is consistent with your company’s highest values. This will require more thoughtfulness on behalf of senior leaders, and more responsibility of junior ones.
What are you doing to empower the strategic corporals in your organization?This is a good time to ask yourself that question. If it can happen to Starbucks, it can happen to you.