We’re All Leaders: A Zingerman’s Staffer Offers Perspective on Zingerman’s “A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Being a Better Leader”

We recently spoke with Stefanie Kerska, one of our bakers at Zingerman’s Bakehouse and an assistant swim coach for the University of Michigan, as well as a champion swimmer in her own right. She’s earned her stripes as a leader, but still found a lot to learn from the perspective Ari offers in Part 2 of his series on leadership and business. Here’s what she had to say about it.


How do you use what you’ve learned in your daily work?

I’m relatively new here. I started seven months ago. But I’ve experienced all these things in the first five months and the experiences are totally different than any other experiences I’ve ever had. And now after reading the book everything is coming together. It brings all the ideas and experiences I’ve had full circle and I understand more why we do things the way we do.

Early on in the book I read something that changed the way I see everything. [On page seven] Ari wrote: “Because I’ve referenced him so regularly in the book, it seems fitting to quote Robert Greenleaf, from his work, Servant Leadership, on the subject. ‘As I look through my particular window on the world, I realize that I do not see all. Rather, I see only what the filter of my biases and attitudes of the moment permits me to see. Therefore, if in the course of this essay, I make a declaration without appending “it seems to me,” please assume such a qualification on everything I say.'” So when I took the Diversity Awareness Class [at Zingerman’s] and we talked about our biases, now everything I look at is different. I think about why people do or think or react in certain ways to specific situations. Everyone has these filters that they see the world with and now I understand people better. There’s no one real world there are six billion versions of it. It was brilliant to start the book with that.

I also think that all the steps and organizational recipes we have are really great because it gets everyone on the same page.I came from a background as a swim coach where I worked 70 hours a week for 51 weeks of year, and I thought that was hard work but baking bread is really physically hard. And one of the most important aspects that I’ve learned from the book and from working here is the sense of responsibility that everyone feels in promoting the end product. The end results are important. Right from first week of working here, I felt such a strong sense of responsibility for the end product. Every day the bakers look at a hundred loaves that had been shaped and someone will pick up one loaf and reshape it until it’s done well. I’ve seen such accountability every day for seven months and it doesn’t ever waver because of bigger orders or because people are tired. It’s the heart of the work. People feel vested and accountable.

What was the best piece of advice from the book?

I really liked the power of listening and the idea of formal learning one or two hours each week. I strive for one hour of learning each week for myself. I was also inspired by the idea of the power of listening. As a coach I was always the one teaching and talking, but coming here to work I was forced to listen and learn. In the Diversity Awareness Class we talked about listening and not forming your response until others finished talking. I’ve learned how to really listen to everything the trainers were telling me and in all the training classes I’ve taken. I still enjoy taking the classes because the things we learn in them are really important. And it’s important to keep learning because you can keep applying the lessons. Whether it’s through reading, classes, or lectures I’m broadening the way I take in information.

Who would benefit from reading this book?

I’ve given it to seven or eight coaches. The things you use to build a successful organization are the same for building a successful team. Change the wording and it could be a coaching book or even a parenting book. It cuts things into a basic foundation for how to encourage people to do the right things for the right reasons. It’s all about accountability and responsibility and it helps when you do what you love. It’s all about finding the right people.

What was one of the most surprising things you read?

The biases idea was a huge ah-ha moment. In a given situation, I used to think of another person, “Why would you think or react that way?” When you think that their route to coming to a certain point is so different from your own it explains so much. It gives me much more tolerance and patience and opens you up to a lot more ideas.

Ari’s idea of leadership on page 109—we’re all leaders—is a radical one. I like to joke about my experience of seeing our dishwasher go by and comment on loaves we just baked as being too light. His job was to take care of the dishes but he felt a responsibility for the quality of the product we put out. Everyone has the opportunity to lead or teach. I feel like everyone is empowered to if it’s for the right reason to do what you need to do. Right now at my level of training I would still consult with someone but that is the first step. It’s so easy to say that we’re all leaders but to experience it daily way is pretty powerful.

Was there any action you’ve taken that was directly inspired by the book?

I’ve been here seven months and my goal for the first six was to earn my Associate’s Degree (from the University of Zingerman’s program). Through this I would like to find something in the bakeshop to improve and to take the lead on something like that. This book gave me the nudge to find something to improve.

What’s been a failure for you that you’ve had a big learning from?

Something I’ve learned here is that I’m trying to work smarter rather than harder. An economy of movement in baking is so important because time is of essence. The longer you handle the dough the worse it gets. You want to keep everything as close as possible to not waste time reaching. It’s why I’m no longer in coaching because I worked long hours but not as smartly as I should have. I spread myself too thin when I should have delegated and I didn’t focus my priorities. This idea has been at the forefront of what I’ve learned from the book.

Now that you’ve finished reading the book, what would you ask Ari?

How long did it take you to figure all this out?

I imagine how hard it is to have ideas in place and to put them into practice every day and keep consistently on-message and not let one bottom line dictate the others. It must be easy to just switch principles when something new comes up. I have a lot of respect for staying the course. I’m curious to know what things came up that made some of these decisions hard, like what would have affected the bottom line so much that it would have made fudging the others easy. We have great checks and balances in place and certain non-negotiables.

Do you have another ZCoB illustrative story to add to the ones in the book?

I’ve been a customer for 20 years and I’ve always gotten great service. When I came in as an employee I assumed that that would change but it didn’t. People bend over backwards to give great service. They could relax with co-workers but they don’t. I’ve always come from a place where I’m not a priority and the customer is. But I came here and received the same great service as our customers. It blew me away.