What CEOs Can Learn from Starbucks’ Chief About Crisis Leadership

It’s not easy for a new CEO to take the reins of an iconic company from a legendary leader. But Kevin Johnson is proving that he has what it takes to build on the legacy of Starbucks’ charismatic Founder and CEO, Howard Schultz.

As the company’s new CEO, Johnson has passed a key leadership test in the positive way he responded to a controversy last Spring, over the arrest of two black men in one of Starbucks’ Philadelphia stores. They had not purchased anything and were seen sitting quietly. So when police hauled them away, the arrest triggered a public outrage. Johnson immediately apologized to the two men. He apologized to Starbucks (SBUX) customers and partners. And he said over and over again that he was accountable for what happened in Philadelphia.

“We failed that day. ” Johnson tells Fortune, reflecting on the chain of events that took place several months ago. “We did not live up to our mission, our values, and how this company was built.”

While some business leaders may talk about the importance of their company’s core values, often it is corporate speak. But not Johnson. He really means it.

“My responsibility was to get on the ground, and understand everything I could about why it happened, how it happened and then take appropriate action to ensure that that never happens again,” he explains.

Johnson took the bold step of closing 8,000 stores for an afternoon of racial bias training. Even today, Johnson says that Starbucks is “continuing the dialogue” with regular training sessions for employees.

“It was one step in the journey. You can’t declare victory after one day. You have to say, hey, we took a positive step forward,” he says. “We laid the foundation for the next steps we’re taking on the journey.”

As Johnson takes those next steps, it looks like he’s also setting a new standard on the right way a leader should approach a crisis.

Watch the video above for more from my interview with Johnson.

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