Not a Hint of Impropriety

by Stephen T. Messenger

January 1, 2021

In 2007, Starbucks faced backlash for a failure to protect the environment.  Between wasting over six million gallons of water per day from constantly running faucets and selling more than two billion unrecyclable paper cups per year, their environmental footprint, or lack thereof, was not making any friends.[i]  Starbucks wasn’t doing anything wrong, per say.  They were simply working on being profitable.  However, there was certainly a perception of environmental impropriety about them that some found unacceptable.  This outside lens lost them support, customers, and profit.

Leaders must not have a hint, a whiff, or a sniff of impropriety about them.  We can all remember that boss who slipped up.  Whether it was embarrassing himself after drinking too much at a company party, napping in the office, or making an offensive comment, his actions instantly lost him credibility with his employees.  Credibility is the bedrock of leadership.  As a young infantry platoon leader, it was easy to see which leaders had the respect and support of their Soldiers and which did not.  Those teams who admired the integrity and confidence of their leaders would rise to the top.  Those leaders who failed to gain respect would constantly be working to prove themselves worthy of leading American Soldiers into combat.  Sometimes, one wrong move can tarnish a reputation.

When I stood in front of the platoon formation, all eyes were upon me.  Based on our working proximity and time together, this group naturally saw both my positive leadership qualities in addition to my many flaws.  As a platoon leader, most Soldiers had more experience in the Army than I did.  I found they could easily forgive my lack of knowledge or competencies, so long as I was actively working on improving, but they could never forgive a lapse in judgement.  I witnessed a few leaders who made poor ethical decisions and lost the respect of their peers and subordinates.  Once lost, it is difficult to get back.

I’ve found that its easier to strive for moral success one hundred percent of the time rather than ninety-nine percent.  Much like being on a diet, you hear people say they’re on a cheat day.  In that twenty-four hour period, their regular diet no longer applies, and they can eat whatever they want.  This logic typically results in negative gains from a temporary rush.  Leaders don’t have the luxury of being on a cheat day.  If they allow themselves permission to slip up ethically, it becomes much easier to repeatedly err in the future.  It might begin with embellishing a travel form to garnish a few extra dollars on a company trip.  But what is next? Once Pandora’s box is open, the next time becomes much more tempting and easier to cheat.  What’s worse, a seemingly private indiscretion turned public will ruin a reputation for a long time.

Starbucks understood this concept.  In 2008 they began making massive changes to their environmental footprint.  They decreased their water usage by twenty-one percent, increased their ability to recycle paper cups and backroom cardboard, rewarded customers for bringing in reusable cups, and used analytics to identify excessive water use from other sources.  Starbucks understood that as a world leader in coffee products, they cannot afford to have a hint, a whiff, or a sniff of impropriety within their business because all eyes were upon them.  As a leader, neither can you, because your team is watching.

[i] UKEssays. (November 2018). Environmental Management System of Starbucks Coffee. Retrieved from

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