The Magic Cup

A Business Parable About a Leader, a Team, and the Power of Putting People and Values First


By Howard Behar

Foreword by Jeffrey Brotman

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We all love the fairy tales we grew up on, creating a world in which good always wins over evil, where those whose hearts are true and who do the right thing come out on top. But, grown-up competition for success is rough, even cutthroat, and we’ve often heard that nice guys finish last.

Not according to Howard Behar, whose career as one of the three leaders who built the Starbucks organization most definitely proves that nice guys finish first. In THE MAGIC CUP, Behar spins an engaging corporate tale to teach us exactly how we can do the same thing.

The story revolves around Vince Steadfast, the newly named CEO of imaginary manufacturer Verity Glassworks, which has fallen on difficult times. Vince is hired to help the once iconic company return to its glory days, and he brings with him a parting gift from his mentor and former boss: a stunning crystal coffee cup from Verity’s halcyon days. The cup turns out to be magic – truly – and helps him come to understand and reinvigorate the values that Verity has misplaced along the way.

As Vince and his new team make their way to (and through) many challenges, including the aptly named Worthy Way, Perilous Passage and Arduous Stair, the cup fills with a gold elixir and the universal truths that they learn to embrace – such as Responsibility, Forgiveness and Courage – magically become engraved in the glass.

In the tradition of great parable writers throughout history, Behar quickly involves us in an engrossing fantasy, continually challenging us to compare each situation with our own real-life experiences. The story of THE MAGIC CUP helps each of us discover that only by acting on sound moral principles can we fill our own cups with the personal and professional success and satisfaction we seek.


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Table of Contents

Reading Group Guide


Copyright Page

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A Note to Readers

Welcome to the story of the Magic Cup. Think of it as a business adventure tale or a modern fable. The events it relates may be make-believe but the story it conveys is real. I've lived it.

Long after the directives, the memos, the leadership lessons, and the PowerPoints are over, it's the stories and experiences that stick with us and guide us. Our big plans and small wins, our trials and tribulations, our desperation and elation, our perseverance and moments of personal greed, our near misses and rare triumphs teach us one truth: Success comes when we believe in something that is bigger than ourselves.

There's magic when a group of people is bound together with common purpose. It's the chemistry of real people, doing the right things, with the right set of values. The journey to discover that magic—to create it with the people on our team—is what this tale is all about.

Enjoy the adventure.


You're about to embark on a wonderful journey in the story of The Magic Cup and the wisdom of Howard Behar wrapped in its pages.

Howard Behar represents a special kind of person, friend, and leader. Since he first swept the floors of his father's grocery store, he was learning the lessons that would shape the culture of every company he helped grow and lead, most remarkably during his twenty years working to build the Starbucks organization and championing its people-centered principles around the world.

I've known Howard from our school days when we both were growing up, as kids in Seattle. It's clear there was something special in the air we were raised in. Seattle was really a small town then and we were part of a loose-knit tribe where everyone looked out for each other, and we didn't know or care how much money you had or what your father or mother did for a living. Growing up in this culture with strong values was both of our stories. It was the same for the Nordstrom kids and Bill Gates. Values drove the city.

It was an accident of birth that our lives got started in a city of hard-working, caring immigrants that came from all over the world. Looking back, I believe a blending of those cultures gave rise to a subdued, basic, un-fancy personality type that rewarded hard work, creating things, entrepreneurialism, and an appreciation for community.

When I co-founded Costco with Jim Sinegal, we shared the desire to create a culture in keeping with the Seattle inclusiveness and fairness I grew up with. We were guided by our ethics and created a family atmosphere in which our employees could thrive and succeed. And we were driven by trust and quality in everything we did, from our products and pricing for our customers to our commitment to our employees.

That's where Howard Behar comes in. A few years into our enormous growth at Costco, Howard Schultz, the founder of the Starbucks we know today, asked me if I could help him put together a management structure and team shortly after he and a group of investors bought the company. He had the idea of transforming a simple coffee bean company into an actual coffee shop company, Italian-inspired cafés where people could drink coffee and spend time together.

I knew Howard Behar was the right person to help Starbucks grow and thrive as a place for people. He had the right heart, drive, and caring. He was in the business of positive thought and positive action. He was a person with great vision and the sense of the potential in people. Howard makes the people around him feel safe. It didn't surprise me when Howard became known as the soul of Starbucks for the twenty years he was there, as it grew into a worldwide coffee company.

Yet not all of us are surrounded by the type of family I had, the grocery store Howard grew up in, or the straightforward, honest, and open culture of Seattle itself. Without a foundation we flounder. Without a moral compass we lack in moral decision-making. We can know the right thing to do, but it can seem too hard to actually do.

The gift of the book you have in your hands, The Magic Cup, is in helping every one of us think about and develop our own personal foundation. It tells a great story with a great message we can all take to heart: We need to continually reaffirm our core values and surround ourselves with people who share those same values. Values are not a declaration of policy. Our values come into being when we live them and build on them, when they are visible.

That's what the characters in The Magic Cup are on a quest to do. While the story of Steadfast, the new CEO at Verity Glassworks, is fiction, the underlying truth is something that many companies and leaders have gone through.

Everyone in the workplace today, including frontline employees, aspiring leaders, and executive leadership, will benefit from the lessons of Steadfast, his mentor, and his new colleagues. Using the power of story, Behar helps us get away from a relentless desire for fast profit and an accompanying lack of focus on building something of substance that will last. We spend way too much time on short-term, transactional goals and not nearly enough time on the people who bring our organizations to life.

The drumbeat of overnight success, money, and fame is all around us with an impact that reaches from Wall Street to pop culture, to the news and our business schools. Howard Behar provides us with something more substantial—an antidote, an inoculation, to connect us to our deeper principles and the foundation that matters.

Companies like Costco, Starbucks, and Nordstrom have proven over and over again that when the rewards—both tangible and intangible in terms of respect and caring—are shared with employees, everyone benefits, including shareholders. No matter what the size of your organization or its financial results, all of us can build success with the people around us when we have the foundations and lessons you'll discover in the journey of The Magic Cup.

I am so fortunate to have had Howard Behar's friendship and wisdom for so many decades and I am happy you'll be able to have a piece of it for yourself with this charming book. Its substantial and deep message is one we all need to hear and heed.

Jeff Brotman


Ready to Lead

If you do your job well enough and if you are committed enough to your task, good things can happen.


The sun came out from behind the clouds as Vince Steadfast stepped onto the street from the underground parking garage. He didn't want to allow himself to get too excited about where he was going. After all, it would be unseemly for someone in his position to appear too enthusiastic. But the simple fact was, his heart was soaring. He'd always taken great pride in the way his career had continued its gradual progression. His wife called him "a glacier," referring to his slow but steady approach, and she meant it as a compliment. But he was about to make a giant leap.

The city of Harken was gleaming, as though nature had bequeathed an extra sheen for this first day of Steadfast's greatest adventure. Harken had been one of the world's most dynamic cities for more than half a century thanks to its combination of culture, innovation, opportunity, and physical beauty. Over the past decade Harken had become something of an inspiration for cities everywhere as it continued to prosper, even in the face of global economic worries. Steadfast was proud of his city and glad to play even the tiniest part in its growing prominence.

The most distinctive landmark on the Harken skyline was the soaring Verity Tower, a block to the left of where Steadfast was currently standing. The sun glinted off the signature dome causing the crystal cupola to sparkle like a diamond that could be seen from every corner of the city. Its reputation around the world was on par with such iconic peers as the Empire State Building in New York, the Lloyd's building in London and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, but in Steadfast's opinion, it was far more beautiful than any of them, architectural majesty in its grandest form.

There's magic there, Steadfast thought, surprising himself. Magic had always seemed like something fanciful to him, the stuff of children's stories and street illusionists. It had no place in his life, especially his business life. If "magic" ever happened in business, it was the result of hard work and dedication. Steadfast believed if you did your job well enough and if you were committed enough to your task, good things would happen.

And good things had indeed happened for Steadfast. Today was his first day as CEO of Verity Glassworks, one of the finest old companies in the city, one that predated most of the city proper but continued to define it. Verity had been founded more than a century earlier as a manufacturer of artisan pieces, gorgeously intricate glass creations. The artisan part of the business had died away a few decades ago due to market forces and a shaky international economy. However, Verity kept its bottom line strong by transitioning to become one of the most significant bottle manufacturers in the country. Verity products sat in refrigerators and pantries these days rather than on living room mantels; some people mourned this fact, even going so far as to say that Verity was just another corporation now. But Steadfast understood. Art was a luxury; commerce was a necessity.

For the past five years, Steadfast had been vice president of operations at Noblecorp, a holding company for a diverse range of consumer goods enterprises. He was happy there, and well compensated, but his access to the upper echelons was blocked by a long-established group of effective executives, headed by CEO Nora Northstar. Steadfast knew that at some point he was going to have to make a move if he wanted to be anything more than "the glacier." This thought had come to mind when he heard that Verity's latest CEO had abruptly resigned. He was still contemplating whether he should go after the job when Nora called him into her office.

"I assume you've heard that Kacen is gone from Verity."

"I've heard. What is that, three in four years?"

Nora shook her head slowly. "It's sad, really, especially when you think about how people used to study Verity's leaders in business schools. Now…"

She trailed off, and Steadfast wasn't sure if he was supposed to react to her comment or not. One of the things he always loved about his relationship with Nora was that they usually seemed to be on the same page and he always seemed to know what she was thinking. But he couldn't read her this morning. Is she just making small talk before we get to the real agenda or is there something more to the mention of Verity's recent volatility? It can't be that Noblecorp is planning to buy Verity, he thought to himself.

Nora's tone suddenly sharpened. "I think you should go after it."

Steadfast still wasn't following her. "Go after what?"

"The Verity job. I can make a call for you."

Steadfast couldn't have been more surprised by the turn in conversation. "You want me to leave Noblecorp?" he said, wondering if she'd been unhappy somehow with his performance.

Nora smiled. "If I could hold on to you forever, I would. But we both know that you're made for something bigger. Make a move on this job. You're ready for it—and they could use you."

Nora's a genuine leader, Steadfast thought, once her advice had started to sink in. She understands that developing the best staff and providing them with the best opportunities sometimes means preparing them so well that they have no choice but to leave. If I'm ever in her position—and maybe I will be soon—I'll need to keep that in mind.

Over the weeks of interviews that followed, Nora had remained unwavering in her support, counseling Steadfast on strategies, helping him gain insight into key players at Verity, and debriefing with him after every stage. When the offer finally came through, Steadfast called his wife to pass along the great news, and a minute later he was in his mentor's office to share his excitement. Steadfast had quit jobs for bigger opportunities before, but he'd never experienced the enthusiasm that ensued when he told Nora. It was almost as though she'd gotten the job rather than he.

On Vince Steadfast's last day at Noblecorp, Nora had to leave his going-away party early because of an emergency at one of their subsidiaries. In that moment of celebration, Steadfast felt himself deflate. He was disappointed that they'd miss the chance to share a private good-bye. Though he knew he'd stay in close touch with Nora, he still wanted the chance to see her one last time before he headed off. When he returned to his office, though, he found a note from Nora along with the most beautiful crystal coffee cup he'd ever seen. The cup looked so delicate he was almost afraid to touch it, but when he picked it up, it felt solid in his hands, the sign of superior craftsmanship.

He turned the cup over and found the Verity insignia. The cup had obviously come from the halcyon days of invention at his new company, before they'd taken to just making bottles. It was probably worth a fortune, though the material value was secondary to Steadfast. That the woman who'd schooled him in so much had found this precious thing and thought to present it to him as he embarked on the most important undertaking of his life was priceless. As was the note she'd left with it, encouraging him to "keep your cup full."

Not with coffee, Nora, Steadfast thought. This cup is much too valuable for my morning brew.

He'd brought it with him on his first day at Verity because he planned to give it a prominent place on his desk, a constant reminder of the great leader who'd given it to him, the important lessons she'd taught him, and the extraordinary faith she'd shown in him.

As he neared the entrance, Steadfast's thoughts shifted back to the tower. It loomed large over Harken, a visual representation of the pinnacle he'd reached in his career. Nora was right; he was ready for this. And he could barely wait to get started.

Gripping the cup in his right hand, Steadfast walked to the end of the block and turned left. To his surprise, there was a sizeable crowd gathered in front of the Verity building, murmuring with obvious agitation. What is going on here?

He made his way slowly through the crowd. Some people were attempting to make calls on their cell phones, though they didn't seem to be succeeding. Others were arguing. Many simply gaped at the tower. Steadfast had been here several times in the last month and he'd never experienced anything like this. Perhaps there had been some kind of accident.

Steadfast turned to the person nearest him, an older woman holding her cup of coffee. "Do you have any idea what's going on?"

The woman started to answer when a blaring announcement cut her short: "Emergency! Alert! Exit the building immediately!"

This riled the crowd further. The murmuring increased but another announcement drowned it out.

"All employees must exit the building. Emergency! Repeat. This is an emergency."

The messages repeated twice, with the crowd growing visibly more agitated each time.

What a way to start my first day at a new job, Steadfast thought.

Looking around, he found a security guard who appeared to be only slightly less befuddled than the rest of the employees.

"What's happening here?" Steadfast asked. "What's the emergency?"

The guard shrugged and checked his phone before answering. "I have no idea. We were just told to exit the building so I helped clear the lobby and then got out of there. I can't get any more information. Our walkies are down, and no one is answering the emergency line."

Steadfast looped his fingers through the cup's handle so he could pull out his own phone and call the chief operating officer for some information. However, even though he was in the middle of the city, he had no service.

As the emergency message started again, Steadfast walked toward the building, though everyone else was heading the opposite way. Kind of comes with the job description, he thought. When he reached the lobby doors, Steadfast had a moment's recollection of the first time he had seen them. He'd been charmed by the stained glass panels with the sunburst image that was Verity's signature motif. He had no time to admire their beauty now, though, not with a restless crowd of employees—his employees—behind him.

The emergency message went silent and Steadfast turned toward the group. He tried waving his arms wildly above his head as he yelled to get everyone's attention, but it took several attempts. Finally, the crowd quieted enough for him to speak.

"My name is Vince Steadfast. As you might know, I'm the new CEO."

"Then maybe you can tell us what's going on!" someone shouted from the back of the crowd. That got the mass agitated all over again. Steadfast gestured for quiet. He was a large man, more than six feet tall with broad shoulders that had benefited him as a power forward in his college basketball days. He'd been told more than a few times that he cut an imposing figure, but his size didn't seem to be helping him much right now. It took more than a minute to calm the crowd.

"I'm afraid I don't know any more than you do, but I'm going inside to investigate."

"You can't go in there," a woman to his right shouted. "They told us to evacuate."

Steadfast nodded. "I understand that, but someone needs to find out what's happening. As the new head of the company I promise I will do my best."


On Sale
Mar 29, 2016
Page Count
144 pages
Center Street

Howard Behar

About the Author

HOWARD BEHAR is a renowned business leader, author, speaker, and mentor. He served at Starbucks for a combined twenty-one years as both an officer and a board member. He was the president of North America and the founding president of Starbucks International. He lives in Seattle, Washington, with his wife, Lynn, where he is able to spend time with his children and grandchildren.

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