All about Good Leading

Another Look at Servant Leadership

Thursday, October 29th, 2020

A Timeless Philosophy That Would Be of Great Help Here in the 21st Century

One of the most common themes of the last six months is how different things are going to be after the pandemic. I keep hearing how we need new thinking to get out of the current situation. But the interesting thing to me is that there’s more than enough insightful old thinking already out there to help all of us move forward to more positive places.
Zingerman's Guide to Good Leading, Part 2: Being a Better Leader, on the counter at the Roadhouse with a masked chef giving thumbs up on the line.
In 1970, at the age of 65, Robert Greenleaf published the first of many pieces on what he had started to call “Servant Leadership.” In 1977 his full book, Servant Leadership was put into print. A decade or so later, Paul Saginaw read it. Shortly thereafter he passed it on to me to do the same. While the formal ideas and language around Servant Leadership were new to us, what we read was actually aligned with what he and I had already been quietly—almost unconsciously—thinking. Greenleaf gave us the words with which we could much more effectively put our partially formed thoughts into action. Our philosophy at Zingerman’s has evolved a lot since those early days, but Servant Leadership continues to be one of the centerpieces. Today, Greenleaf’s approach remains an uncommon—and yet, highly effective—way to work. If, and when, we put it to action, it has the power to alter almost everything that happens, in our organizations and our communities.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking of late. If Greenleaf’s idea of Servant Leadership was the norm, not the exception, in business and in our communities, the world would be a whole lot different place—kinder, more collaborative, and more effective. Greenleaf once said, “a good society would be dominated by the servant [leadership] idea.” I agree. If you’re drawn to what we do here at Zingerman’s; if you’re looking to build a more caring and coherent team at work; if you believe generosity and compassion can coexist with clear expectations and gentle but firm pressure to perform for the sake of the greater good, then Servant Leadership is one of the tools you might explore.

It’s eight or nine years ago now that we put Secret #23 in Part 2 of the Guide to Good Leading into print. It’s my look at Servant Leadership and the way we use it here at Zingerman’s, along with the six elements of Servant Leadership to which we hold ourselves accountable here. Here’s a small bit of what I wrote in the essay:

The phrase “Servant Leadership” may sound like one of those nice throw-aways they always write into the opening section of employee manuals. But please don’t let any perception of passivity fool you—Servant Leadership is very strong stuff. If you really live it, Servant Leadership changes everything. . . . Servant Leadership is, quite simply, one of the easiest ways I know to help make our organization more effective, and the world a better place in the process. Best of all, it’s free. You can make an enormous impact without investing anything other than your own intellectual and emotional energy.

The basic belief of Servant Leadership is that our job as leaders is—first and foremost—to serve our organization. To paraphrase John Kennedy’s magnificent, 1961 inaugural speech, “Ask not what your organization can do for you. Ask what you can do for your organization.” To those who already think that way, this statement might sound obvious, or even inevitable, but in my experience, it’s actually neither. In fact, in most traditional organizations the service flows in the other direction—the rest of the organization exists primarily to serve the needs of its leaders. In a servant-led world, by contrast, we do the opposite—here, we serve the organization. Instead of just being about the boss, Servant Leadership is about success for all involved.

Knowing me as many of you do, you might imagine that Robert Greenleaf was an active part of a Russian emigrant anarchist collaborative on the East Coast. But he was neither an immigrant, nor part of any New York intelligentsia. To the contrary, Greenleaf grew up in rural America. The man who developed the idea of Servant Leadership was born in the small Indiana town of Terre Haute in 1904, on the 14th of July, and he worked all of his formal, 38-year-long career with the rather mainstream AT&T. He was quite religious and most photos of him show him in offices or classrooms wearing a suit and tie. No protest signs, no sit ins, no arrests. And yet, mainstream as he might have seemed to a casual observer, Greenleaf was anything but a status-quo thinker. One AT&T president described him as the company’s “kept revolutionary.” I’m pretty sure Greenleaf wouldn’t have ever considered himself an anarchist, but there are huge overlaps with what he wrote about and what I would lay down as a core set of beliefs for myself. Over half a century ago, Greenleaf was concerned about the quality of life for people working in modern companies. He observed over and over again that there was “a decrease in creative and critical thinking and a separation of work and self by the worker.” It’s very much what later struck me as the “Energy Crisis in the Workplace” (Secret #19, in Part 2). He imagined Servant Leadership as a way to reverse that energy drain. It was intended to help both the organizations that used it and the people who were part of them. “I believe that people grow in these moral, perceptive, creative, and decisive qualities as they achieve the freedom to become themselves.” He was right. Servant Leadership has been shown over time to increase engagement, improve emotional health, and long term economics all at the same time.

Humility, a topic that is close to my heart right now, was both an integral element of Robert Greenleaf’s way of being in the world, and also of the philosophy he put forward to make the world a better place. I wrote in the new pamphlet, “Humility: A Humble, Anarchistic, Inquiry,” about 16 different methods in which we convey the value of humility and systemically reinforce it. One of them is Servant Leadership. Humility is a prerequisite for truly living Servant Leadership in meaningful ways. For himself, Greenleaf said, very humbly, “I’m just doing my part in my small way to help that necessary cultural change to happen.”

Speaking of doing his part, James Perry ran for Mayor of New Orleans on a progressive platform that was based on Servant Leadership. Perry shared:

Among the most important lessons I’ve learned from Dr. King is the example of servant leadership. A servant leader is one who offers an inclusive vision; listens carefully to others; persuades through reason; and heals divisions while building community. Martin Luther King, Jr. is an example of a servant leader. His life shows the extraordinary power of servant leadership to radically transform a nation. Our communities and our country need servant leadership more than ever. Deepening economic woes threaten the American dream for far too many working people. Racial divisions are embarrassingly persistent in too many aspects of our economic and social lives. Political despair is battering the uniquely American optimism that has made us a great nation. There are precious few servant leaders in our current political environment. Many elected officials are more interested in personal power, individual legacy, and financial gain than in the sacrifice and commitment that servant leadership requires.

In case you thought I pulled that out of yesterday’s paper, Mr. Perry wrote his piece ten years ago. It still stands now. Perry clearly makes the point that Servant Leadership is not new. And yet it’s anything but the norm. But it is life altering. James Autry, whose books had a big influence on me early on, said of Servant Leadership:

Once you recognize it and begin to work on it, you have to stop throughout the day and examine what your actions are. In order to be able to admit mistakes and to learn from others, no matter what their status . . . That’s a huge leap for a lot of people. It seems simple to say it, doesn’t it? But it’s difficult for us to fathom how challenging that is for some people who act out of ego. Because you are saying, “Put my ego in the drawer and I’m going to ask how you think it should be done; you, who are seventeen layers down in the hierarchy from me.”

I’ve been immersed (though I still fall short regularly) with Servant Leadership for so long that I forget there’s any other way to lead. My mistake. Reading through the New York Times over the weekend I came across a couple of quotes from upper-level leaders along the lines of “Bosses shouldn’t ever carry their own bags. It makes them look too ordinary,” and “I’m not worrying about the community or the employees. My responsibility is really only to the shareholders.” Seriously? I guess former Senator Alan Simpson wasn’t off base when he said, “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C., are not bothered by heavy traffic.” While it clearly is not the national norm, I believe that to truly create a meaningfully connected, healthy organization, Servant Leadership must be in place. The idea of it is embedded in #4 on the list of Twelve Natural Laws that’s in Part 1 of the Guide to Good Leading. (There’s much more in Secret #1.)

So what would happen if we were to make Servant Leadership the norm? What if it was standard procedure to put Servant Leaders in high-level roles in every organization? What if we taught it to ten year-olds so that by the time we were 20, Servant Leadership was so obviously a better way to work that we’d just as soon abandon it as we would drive on the wrong side of the road?

Servant Leadership is very much a different way of thinking. In fact, as I wrote in Secret #23, I believe it’s actually a different language for leadership. And as linguist Edward Sapir smartly observed, different languages lead to different ways of thinking. And without different ways of thinking, we will not, as I said above, get different results. Gretchen Whitmer said a few days ago, “Words matter.” I believe things would be better for all of us if we just made Servant Leader and “leader” into veritable synonyms. Semanticist Alfred Korzybski said succinctly, “Definitions create conditions.” At the Philadelphia Freedom Schools they call college students “Servant Leader interns” and high school students “junior Servant Leaders.” Imagine if you or I had internalized the idea of Servant Leadership by the time we were 22? Imagine if almost everyone had.

Actually, I can answer that directly. This is what Zach Milner, who started at Zingerman’s four or five years ago as a busboy and was just last week promoted to be a manager at the Roadhouse, shared on the subject:

Although it’s seen as a promotion, true servant leadership sees it less about being vested with more power to tell others what to do and how to do things, and more about the opportunity to lift others up—their success defines how well you succeed. It isn’t done for the fame, money, power, etc. What is the key motivation, above all else, with Servant Leadership? It is that of Love. Genuine love for those you serve. The best examples of Servant Leaders don’t see a hierarchy and decisions to be handed down to those they manage. Rather they see the problems that arise, know they cannot, themselves, possibly know all the answers, and then ask their team honest questions. This line of reasoning falls in line with showing humility—a Servant Leader is a person who strives to be humble whenever possible, as their example will trickle down to the rest of the staff and will become infectious. Servant Leadership is truly the only honest, morally good way to lead others in any setting. It allows all people from all walks of life and positions, from dishwasher to owner, to feel safe and loved enough to speak their minds and truly seek what is best for the whole, not just themselves. This can not only unlocks the potential of every single individual, but makes the group incredibly desirable to want to be a part of, drawing in other people with like-minded passions that will only make the group better over time…

One of the beauties of Servant Leadership is that anyone can do it. And it requires no one to do anything other than us. If we believe it’s the right thing to do, then all we need to do is start doing it. As Peter Block wrote, “We are the cause, not the effect.” What if you aren’t in charge but you like the idea? Just do it anyways. I don’t think anyone needs clearance from corporate headquarters to be kind or to treat everyone with dignity. We don’t need anyone’s permission to write a vision, to give great service to your team, to be ethically grounded in your decision-making, learn, teach, and go to great lengths to say thanks! There are no forms to fill out and no certificates that give you permission to proceed.

The principles and practice of Servant Leadership that Paul and I learned all those years ago from Robert Greenleaf’s writing changed our lives here at Zingerman’s. Clearly, Servant Leadership has done the same for many others—even if still a small minority—around the world. It embeds everything I wrote last week about humility into an effective, grounded style of leadership we can all put into action if we choose.

Robert Greenleaf died 30 years ago, at the age of 86, on Sept. 29, 1990. While his family might not have realized it at the time, he died on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Rabbi Nina Cardin writes, “One grand lesson of Rosh Hashanah [and Yom Kippur] is not that we have to be perfect, but that we are, and can continue to be, very good. It is sufficient if we strive to achieve our potential. It is only when we fail to be the fullness of who we are that we are held accountable.” Robert Greenleaf’s life fit that mold well. He set a positive pace for the rest of us, showing that although the mainstream of the business world didn’t yet see it, that there was another, better, way to work. So maybe we could take Yom Kippur each year to remind ourselves of what Greenleaf and others of his ilk shared with us, and recommit to being held accountable in the book of good leadership and good life? If we do that work effectively into the future, we might find that everything really will be different in the post-pandemic future towards which we’re all slowly moving.

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

The Power of Positive Beliefs

Wednesday, September 30th, 2020

A Note from Ari’s Top 5, September 30

Marveling at the difference a small shift in beliefs can make in every aspect of our lives

As I write, we’re in the process of putting the final touches on the first ever “Zingerman’s Statement of Beliefs.” We’re working on getting them printed so we can give copies to our staff, and so those of you who want to can buy one as well. I’ll write more about why I believe the “Statement of Beliefs” is so important and how we plan to use it soon. But for the moment, I want to start with sharing the very first belief listed on the Statement:

“We believe leading with positive beliefs makes a positive difference.”

There are dozens of other beliefs in the document, and all are important. But, the more I work with the Statement of Beliefs, the clearer it’s becoming that that first belief is particularly important—it provides critical framing for the whole project. All the beliefs that follow on our list, are also positive. As are the stories that follow here. Like I said, “We believe leading with positive beliefs makes a positive difference.”

Sunrise above buildings with sparkling water balanced on a fence at Roadhouse Park

Sunrise at Roadhouse Park

As many of you will already know, during the work on The Power of Beliefs in Business I began to imagine our beliefs as the root systems of our lives. What we believe—whether we realize it or not, is driving our decisions and behaviors every day. Change the belief, and you’ll likely change the behavior too. By contrast, keep the belief the same, and we will continue to get the same outcomes. In hindsight, it’s obvious. The roots below ground always dictate, 100 percent of the time, what will later emerge above the surface. One of the most important learnings for me out of all the work was this:

  • Negative beliefs will lead to negative outcomes.

  • Neutral beliefs won’t do much of anything.

  • Positive beliefs create positive outcomes.

Negative beliefs can create action. They can create both antipathy or apathy, evoke anger, tear down buildings, get people fired, or bring relationships to an end. But they will not create calming, collaborative and creative results going forward. Which means that if we want to create long-term positive outcomes, we must lead from a positive place. It’s a short sentence and a simple concept but it’s a big statement. If we want to build meaningful, healthy, sustainable organizations, organizations that generate positive energy and leave their communities better than we found them, we need to begin our work with positive beliefs.

Like many things in life, it’s easier to understand this concept intellectually than it is to put it into daily practice. Negative beliefs are all around us. Most of us grew up, unknowingly, with plenty of them. They’re on the news, they’re in social media, they’re in notes from meetings we go to. It could be thinking ill of coworkers or customers. Or about our neighbors, our in-laws, our partners, our spouses. It could be about entire groups of people—racism, anti-Semitism, the belief that women can’t lead, or young people won’t read. Negative beliefs are so pervasive that we’re often not even aware that they’ve entered our minds—criticism and complaining, gossip and negative thinking can be so pervasive as to pass, pretty much unnoticed, as “normal.” The more we hear them, the deeper the roots go, and the harder it is to get them out of our heads. It can be done though. We have the freedom and power to choose our own beliefs. And small shifts that we make from negative beliefs to positive beliefs actually make positive differences. In the long run, a big difference.

To be clear, sticking to positive beliefs does not mean ignoring problems. We face big issues in our organizations and society at large every day. So, no, I’m not suggesting we nominate Pollyanna for President. But, it turns out, we can have negative beliefs about a problem (“There’s nothing we can do. We’re at the mercy of others.”), or we can have positive beliefs about problems (“This is a serious issue—let’s start working on how we can make things better”). Starting with positive beliefs won’t guarantee good results, but they sure will increase the odds that we can make good things happen.

What follows are a series of “short stories”—all of which have happened in the last few weeks—that have served to reinforce the power of positive beliefs for me.

DeVeaux worked at the Deli as a porter in what we would now call “the early years.” After he left the Deli, DeVeaux got into design and consulting. He’s creative, a musician, a caring thinker, a good ZingTrain customer, and very community minded. He’s still a great customer to this day, as is his whole family. After they were in the other evening at the Roadhouse, DeVeaux emailed me the next day with thanks for their dinner and to share this story:

I’ve been working really hard to change and improve the culture where I work and have made significant progress. Although at one point I was intent on leaving the company out of frustration, I shifted gears and tried to appreciate the positives, which are many. I started with changing my own mindset on gratitude and appreciation for what I have, and then working on what was important to me that I could change. So, it was part internal change, and partly learning to sell the importance of an idea and taking initiative to make it happen. The final component was making some great hires over the past few years of people who shared my goals [and, I’ll insert my own contextually relevant comment, his beliefs] and were willing to help. I even got the owners to attend some of the ZingTrain Leadership Series last year. This all culminated with an award I received at our annual Townhall. This is only the second time it’s been given out. The partners said some really nice things about me, how I’ve challenged them to be better leaders and transformed the culture, improving the business. It all started with the internal shift of “flipping the switch.”

The second story comes from Christine at the Deli. Based on the positive belief that others might benefit, she gave me permission to share this story: “Feel free to quote me. If it helps or inspires someone else that’s great.” After the piece I did on visioning came out last week, Christine wrote to share this story:

I’ve been seriously struggling lately with navigating this new reality (like everyone). Your writing about visioning earlier this week really struck a chord. I’ve been reading and re-reading it a lot this week, getting something new each time. As a result, I’ve slowly been changing my thinking. I have been so focused on what is “wrong” or causing me anxiety that I haven’t been appreciating all the positive things going on in my life. I wrote a vision and I feel better because of it. I was feeling like I had the 80/20 rule in reverse. Like seriously 80% of the things in my life are OK, but I was taking that 20% of anger and fear and anxiety and allowing it to take up all my mental space. Yes, those emotions are still there, but there was something about writing that bigger-picture vision two years from now that put things into perspective.

Here’s a small example of how my attitude has been changing: I’ve had my front door open today while I’m working for the first time in a month. My neighbor across the street has had a large collection of yard signs and flags for a political candidate I find abhorrent. I would get SO angry every time I opened the front door. I decided to refocus my view; by putting paper up to block my view of the sign, I no longer focused on something that upset me. Instead I get to see flowers and blue sky and trees. Yes, the signs are still there, nothing has changed except where I have decided to focus my energy.

The third short story starts with Marsha, who’s been a big player in the behind-the-scenes part of my life for decades, and who’s read The Power of Beliefs in Business, because of which, she sent me this from artist Emily McDowell:

“Finding yourself” is not really how it works. You aren’t a ten-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. “Finding yourself” is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.

Positive beliefs, it turns out, are just as important when it comes to what we believe about ourselves. If we believe badly about ourselves, bad outcomes are almost certain. By shifting to positive beliefs, as Ms. McDowell so eloquently addresses, we can stay calmer, work more effectively, have a more positive impact on others around us, and remain more resilient—increasing our odds of getting to the future we envision.

The fourth story goes like this: I was sitting out front of the Roadhouse as I have been doing a lot over the last few months—a good spot in the warm sun and fresh-squeezed orange juice are hard to beat. Among the other guests arriving for breakfast was a gentleman around my age. He looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. In the spirit of my friend Anese Cavanaugh’s teachings, his energy struck me (even across the parking lot) as positive, creative, grounded, and authentic. It was a beautiful Michigan morning, and he and the folks he was with were waiting for the dining room to open for brunch. From my table about 30 feet away, I overheard them wondering about what would be on the menu. I went inside and got them a copy. I went back to work, and he and his group went ahead, ordered, then sat out in Roadhouse Park, and ate breakfast.

About half an hour later, the gentleman walked back over and asked if I was one of the owners. I shyly said yes. He proceeded to share this story:

I was here a few years ago with my family for dinner. When you came by our table, I didn’t know who you were. I thought you were the busboy. I had half of my steak left on my plate, and you asked me if it was OK. I told you that the first half of it was fantastic, but the temperature had dropped prodigiously, and by the time I got to the other half it wasn’t hot, and it wasn’t what I wanted to eat. I’ll always remember you went and took the steak off my bill. You listened, and you treated me like a human being. I tell people that story all the time. And ever since then, if anyone tells me that they’re coming to Ann Arbor, I tell them to go to Zingerman’s.

I only vaguely recalled the details of the interaction itself. But in the spirit of Maya Angelou’s, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel,” I most definitely remembered him. I asked his name, trying to place him. “Ernst,” he said. “Oh yeah,” I said, “we talked for a while after you ate. You live in New York, right?” “Yep. I’m from Aruba, but I live in Brooklyn.” I thanked him for reminding me of the story, gave him my business card, and told him how happy I was to have him here visiting again.

He headed back to the family’s breakfast table. As he walked away I checked my computer. I remembered Ernst Mohamed and his positive creative energy. Immediately I found the file I was looking for. After he and his family had been in for dinner a few years before, I looked him up online. In part, I did it to learn more about him, but also in the hopes that I could find an email address to send him a thank you note. I didn’t find the contact info, but I did find this inspiring article about him. When I read it, it reinforced why I’d liked his energy so much!

The whole story of our interaction, I realized while I was writing, was based on positive beliefs. About customers. About people. About diversity. Even though my inclination is to not bring up the matter of race, I realized that in honor of the meaningful work Ernst Mohamed is doing in his community, I’m going to. Because in the spirit of poet Pat Parker who wrote a piece entitled, “For the white person who wants to know how to be my friend”:

The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black.

Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.

Ernst is Black. (He’s also, it turns out, Jewish, but I wouldn’t have known that at the time.) The service we gave Ernst when he told me about his steak was, for us at Zingerman’s, our norm. It’s all, I now see, based on positive beliefs. He was our guest. We treat all customers with dignity and are committed to giving them a great experience. He wasn’t totally happy with his steak. Solution? Simple. Do the right thing. Refund his money.

But change the underlying beliefs, and you alter the outcomes. This story, in another restaurant in another place, could have gone very differently. The manager might think to himself, “Hey the customer already ate half the steak. He’s clearly scamming. Just trying to get something for free.” Based on those beliefs, the manager might have done nothing more than mumble an apology. If the manager had a lot of negative beliefs about Black people, there would at the least have probably been a lot of internal eye rolling. Maybe even worse. And even if the words spoken to Mr. Mohamed might have been formally “fine,” skeptical, unwelcoming energy sends a message. As he says in the article I found online: “I realized that in the eyes of a racist person my skin color is all that matters. Taken one event at a time, in isolation, maybe these aren’t such big deals, at least for me. But over time, one after the other, they are that foot, exerting constant pressure.” Negative beliefs of all sorts repeated regularly for years—whether they’re from our family, the press, or our boss—are wearing.

How do we change from negative beliefs to positive? The recipe I settled on is in Secret #43 in Part 4. Few of us understood growing up that our beliefs were nothing more than changeable lenses we learned early in our lives. Or that, like childhood nicknames or our favorite stuffed animals, they may have been fine at one point but not so great later in life. But it turns out we have full capacity to opt for different beliefs. The thing is, we can’t just order up a set of new ones. When the roots of negative beliefs are 30 years old, they aren’t just going to melt into nothingness overnight no matter how good our intentions. As Edgar Schein wrote, “Learning new things is easy when there is no unlearning involved.” The key here is to understand—and believe—that we CAN change them.

Last little bit of this series of short stories. For some reason a few weeks ago, I decided I wanted to know more about Jimi Hendrix. I’ve long loved his music and I have all the albums (on vinyl) from when I was a kid. I found this clip of him on the old Dick Cavett Show. It was made shortly after Woodstock when Hendrix did that mind-blowing marvelous version of the Star Spangled Banner. At one point, Dick Cavett says something about preparing himself to receive nasty letters about Hendrix’s “unorthodox version” of the national anthem. Having read—and gotten—some of those angry letters over the years, I immediately started to imagine how harsh they might be. But rather than get pulled into an argument, Hendrix smiles, reframes the beliefs, and takes the conversation in the opposite direction: “I don’t think it’s unorthodox,” he tells Cavett with a smile. “I think it’s beautiful.”

Secret #41, “Leading with Positive Beliefs” is out in pamphlet form. It’s online here, or on display at the Coffee Company, Roadhouse, and Deli.


Devote Meaningful Time to Time

Wednesday, January 24th, 2018

An excerpt from Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 3: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Managing Ourselves, Secret #37.

If the main focus … is to develop a more positive relationship with time, then the first place to start, as with any relationship, is by devoting some quality time to it. Seriously, how many really rewarding relationships of any sort have you had that you didn’t devote meaningful time to? Getting to know time, quite simply, takes time; if your connection with your kids, your significant other, your work, or anything else you care about were merely something you squeezed into the spare moments that may crop up here and there, the quality of that relationship wouldn’t likely be very good. The same is true with time. Treat it like an unwanted stepchild, and the odds are that tension, frustration, and trouble are pretty sure to follow suit.

Building a good relationship with time feels, to me, a lot like what it takes to work out effectively. We all know that we won’t get in shape by worrying about our health; nor will we improve our relationship to time by lamenting how little of it we have. Making time for either is rarely urgent, but it’s almost always helpful. Even if it’s awkward in the moment, you’re pretty sure to feel far better in the long run. We get away with not doing either when we’re young, but the older we get, the more we have going, the harder it is to move forward in a healthy way without making some commitment to do better. There are always about eight hundred good reasons not to work out on any given day, but everyone knows that we’ll feel better for it if we do. The work we invest in exercise usually results in increased energy going forward, better grounding, better health, and lower stress. The same is true for time; put some time and effort in up front, and pretty soon you’ll bring better energy and efficiency to almost everything else you do. And whether it’s working out or spending time on time, once you get used to it, it’s unlikely you’ll go back to the haphazard ways of old.

One of the most effective ways I’ve learned to spend time on time is by engaging in reflection. Taking a few minutes to look back on what’s happened, to assess what your actions have attained, how they correlated with your intentions, and how you felt about the whole thing, can be a great help. If we don’t know what’s worked well and what’s been less than ideal in the way we’ve managed our time to date, it’s tough to make major improvements going forward.

In essence, I suppose, it’s a self-review on how you spend your time. Since you’re ultimately your own boss, it’s up to you to manage the messages you send yourself. We also need to take time to consider the time to come. How much time is left in the day? In the month? In the year? In our lives? What do you need to erase from the to-do list in order to give yourself a good shot at completing what you want to get done? Is there anything really meaningful we want to add to our list before time, for the period we’re considering, comes close to running out?

The journaling I do every morning helps me get my mind around what I need to do for the day, how I’m feeling, what I’ve done, what I appreciate, what’s happened around me, and what I see coming up on the horizon. As I put down random thoughts and feelings, I’malways reminded of something I want to do, someone I want to appreciate, or something I can positively contribute that wasn’t in my mind when I began writing. When I start to worry about running out of time, I try to quiet my mind—I know that worrying is energy expended unproductively. Attempting to appreciate each moment and everything in it has helped me significantly—it’s turned my relationship with time into a positive, rewarding experience I like being part of, rather than an effort to escape from someone else’s idea of a rat race.


Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 3: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Managing Ourselves

Secret #37

Show People How Much They Matter

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

An excerpt from Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 4: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to The Power of Beliefs in Business, Secret #45.

One of the first responsibilities we have as hope-building leaders is to demonstrate daily to everyone in the organization how much we value them for who they are. Taking time to learn their story—where they’re from, what their family life is like, what they want for their future, what sort of music they listen to, what they do when they’re not at work—helps us honor them as the unique creative individuals they are. Asking how their significant other is, inquiring how their kids are doing in school, or discovering their favorite food (assuming we listen attentively to their answers) may seem minor, but it can have a major impact.

Hope levels go up every time that we as leaders actively envision each person we hire as a potentially great contributor. As Pulitzer Prize–winning Native American author N. Scott Momaday says, “We are what we imagine. Our very existence consists in our imagination of ourselves. Our best destiny is to imagine, at least, completely, who and what, and that we are. The greatest tragedy that can befall us is to go unimagined.” Many people are viewed by their boss as a pain in the organizational ass, an interchangeable part hired to fill a long-term hole, or maybe as a moderately competent role player. I try to do the opposite—I imagine them as amazing. I want to help find the artist in everyone we hire: to inspire them to greatness and help them find their passion and their power. Everyone wants to matter. And I believe they do.

How we do it here: appreciations, Service Star awards, orientation classes, Bottom Line Change, open-book finance, open meetings, stewardship, Servant Leadership, 3 Steps to Giving Great Service, 5 Steps to Effectively Handling a Complaint, and authorizing everyone to do whatever they need to make things right for a guest.

Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading: The Power of Beliefs in Business

Secret 45: A Six-Pointed Hope Star

Make Something Special

Friday, August 4th, 2017

If you want to have a really special business, well . . . I know it’s obvious, but I’ll state it anyway: the product has to be really special, too. I’m not saying it has to be expensive. Just special. Exceptional. Engaging. Interesting. Better still, unique. (Or at least unique to your part of the world—pimento cheese is found in just about every kitchen in the South, but in Ann Arbor you won’t find it anywhere but Zingerman’s . . . at least not yet!) Put something out there that people will get excited about, take note of, talk about, and want to actively get behind, through good times and bad. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but almost any great company that comes to mind was built around a special product or service.

Keep in mind that even products that now seem unremarkable were once unique. Offering drive-in restaurant service was something special back when the McDonald brothers got going, and the burgers probably weren’t all that bad, either. Parking outside the Golden Arches back in the day was a cool thing to do—not just something you did for convenience or to keep your kids quiet. Sears was once a huge innovator in catalog sales and service, not just a department store struggling to survive in the 21st century mall. (They were social innovators, too: check out the Rosenwald schools, started by part owner and president, Julius Rosenwald, back in the early years of the 20th century.)

Excerpt from Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 1: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business

Secret #18

Find the Positives

Friday, July 14th, 2017

An excerpt from Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 4: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to The Power of Beliefs in Business, Secret #41.

It’s not easy to stay positive in a world in which we’re surrounded by cynicism, knocked down by tragedy in the news, trying to work through illness and uncertainty in our personal lives. But even a mindful and imperfect effort to keep moving in the right direction makes a difference. We feel better when we’re walking the path we chose to be on, regardless of how hard it may be in the moment. Emotional resilience gains respect, which builds inner strength.

I’m all about win-win, but emotion is essentially a zero sum game. When a culture is filled with harsh criticism, naysaying, blaming, and behind-the-back baloney, there’s not much room left for the light and upbeat. An environment like that is very vulnerable to disaster. The best way to move out the negative is to fill the ecosystem with affirmative and appreciative approaches. Weeds may still grow, but they’re peripheral. The more we fill our spaces and our spirits with appreciation—the real thing, not inauthentic superficial sweetness that sends nice sentiments that we clearly don’t mean—the better things are going to go. As Henri Matisse said, “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”

It’s certainly proven true for us at Zingerman’s. It’s right there in the 12th Natural Law of Business: “Great organizations are appreciative, and the people in them have more fun.” To quote positive-psychology professor Martin Seligman, “Positive mood produces broader attention, more creative thinking, and more holistic thinking. This, in contrast to negative mood, which produces narrowed attention, more critical thinking, and more analytic thinking.” Data show a connection in positive work environments to lower staff turnover, better mental health, higher immune-system function, and fewer sick days taken. (If you don’t believe all that, maybe skip to Secret #43 and explore whether you might want to change that belief.)

If you believe, as I do, that there’s some good and some not so good in most situations, it can be challenging to quickly identify the upside. I was raised to focus on finding the flaws first, then argue about the right answer, and finally fix what was wrong. I know I’m not alone in that. Rebecca Solnit notes, “Yiddish can describe defects of character with the precision that Inuit describe ice or Japanese rain.” American Jews swapped Yiddish for English, but the thinking process didn’t change. I learned how to argue, how to think quickly, how to push forward through adversity, how to have emotional resilience.

But, still, I’m glad I moved on. Finding the flaws first—other than in an emergency where urgent action is the point—almost always leads to failure. Even in the darkest of days, there are plenty of positive things happening. Everything we know about our minds says that the more we focus on those positive things, the more positive things are going to happen. Wendell Berry suggests, “Maybe the answer is to fight always for what you particularly love, not for abstractions and not against anything: don’t fight against even the devil, and don’t fight to ‘save the world.’”

A small story from my childhood comes to mind. When my grandmother used to go shopping, she was sure that most shopkeepers were out to cheat her. She was very diligent—watching their work for short weighting, or in case they should try to surreptitiously slip in some subpar product. She’s not the only one—when I go to markets I often see people digging through piles of produce to find just the “right” piece of fruit or ear of corn. If you look up at the vendors while their customers are doing this, sometimes you’ll see them smirking slightly and biting their tongues. My own approach is the opposite of my grandmother’s. Instead of treating the farmers as potential antagonists, I appeal to the farmer’s expertise and integrity. When they ask me which pint of peaches I want, I ask them to just give me the one they think is best. I can’t prove that what I get is any better than what my grandmother got. But I’m confident that my life is less stressful and that going to the market is a much more enjoyable experience for me.

Practical Tips

• Use the Three and Out Rule. This is a little self-management mechanism I made up a few years back and wrote about in Part 1 (on page 214, if you want to see it in the original). It’s such an eminently effective tool that I couldn’t stand to leave it out of this piece just because I’d already put it in print earlier. It goes like this: When I feel my energy sliding into the negative realm, I find someone around me—whether in person, on the phone, or via email—and I thank them. Sincerely. For something that they’ve done that I honestly appreciate. I always get back positive energy from doing this.

Then I immediately find someone else and do it again. Bingo. I get back more positive energy. Within a matter of minutes, I repeat my act of appreciation a third time. Voil.! More good energy comes my way. In the face of all that positivity, I simply cannot stay in a bad mood. The smiles, the warmth, and the wealth of good feeling that others give me for having unexpectedly appreciated them always turns my day around. And, if my mood gets better, consider the impact on the rest of our organization. Talk about time as an investment. What better use of 10 minutes can you imagine than doing the Three and Out Rule? Try it out. Three and Out is great stuff!

• Try the Three Good Things exercise. I learned this one from positive psychologist Martin Seligman. Every day write down three good things that happened to you. Then, for each, answer these questions: Why did this thing happen to me? What does it mean to me? How can I have more of it in the future? I’ve used the technique myself and taught it to others, too. It works. Over time, people build the habit of seeing more of the good things that were there all along. And guess what? More good things start to happen all the time.

• Flood with positivity. Noting three good things daily works well over a period of weeks. But sometimes, when I’m in a dark space, I don’t have time to wait. This technique can turn my day around in a matter of minutes. I just pull out my journal and start listing all the good things I have around me and in my life. It’s the emotional equivalent of flooding rice fields. The water kills off the weeds. By the time I’ve listed like 20 or 30 great things, I’m usually back to a more centered place. The whole process generally takes me less than five minutes.

• Offer appreciations at the end of meetings. When you’re getting ready to wrap up any formal group meeting, pause for four or five minutes of appreciations. Anyone in the room can appreciate anyone or anything they want. It’s informal and no one is required to speak. Most people usually do, though. It’s a great way to get ourselves focused on all the good around us before we head back into the day-to-day work world. (For more on how we do it, see Secret #13, in Part 1.) We’ve been doing this for 20 years now, and I swear by it. It’s simple; it’s free; it requires no software license; and other than possible awkwardness the first few times you do it, it can’t fail.

Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading: The Power of Beliefs in Business

Secret #41 Leading with Positive Beliefs