Sometimes, many years after a record is released, a song that originally received very little attention later turns out to be one of the most significant pieces on the album. While a few other cuts might have become hit singles, these other tracks were mostly ignored at the time of release. Secret #22, “We’re All Leaders,” fits that bill. Ten years after it was published, on page 85 of Part 2, A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Being a Better Leader, I believe #22’s time has arrived. Of everything in the book, this essay might end up being the most important. Which is why we’ve decided to publish the piece for the first time as a free-standing pamphlet. The calendar alone is a good omen. 2022, after all, seems the ideal time to release Secret #22 from Part 2, right?
Like so many important learnings in my life, the story of Secret #22 is centered around a change in my beliefs. As Gareth Higgins will teach us on Tuesday evening, November 1, at the Roadhouse, when we change our beliefs, we will soon change our stories. Over time, the two in tandem come together to change our worlds. The shift I write about in the pamphlet might seem small, but in the long run, it’s radical. For the first thirty years of my leadership life, as I write in the essay, “I saw leadership and management as one and the same.” That all switched suddenly one day while journaling back in 2011, when I had one of what Stas’ Kazmierski taught us to call “belated glimpses of the obvious.” Here’s how I explain it in “Secret #22”:
A “leader,” I now believe, is not the same as a manager. Being a great leader requires no title and no particular experience. No one necessarily appoints a leader; leaders don’t necessarily have any particular set of responsibilities and they’re often invisible on an org chart. There’s no age requirement. Education can help but it hardly counts for anything if what you learned in the classroom isn’t applied in a constructive way. Although leadership is most often associated with power and hierarchy, the truth is that it’s not all that connected to either. In fact, the only thing that truly gets you into the ranks of leaders is the decision to lead combined with the ability to actually start leading.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, we have always wanted an organization in which everyone working believes that they “really can make a difference.” In these rather challenging times, encouraging everyone to lead is more important now than ever.
Much earlier in our organizational history, we had asked everyone at Zingerman’s to take responsibility for the quality of our service, and then (through Open Book Management) for our finance. At first, the idea of applying this same sense of equity and inclusion in leadership thinking seemed strange, but the more I thought about it, the more evident it seemed. As I wrote in Secret #22:
I’m all about clearly defined job responsibilities and leaders stepping up to serve the organization. But the more I work my way through and around the idea of this whole thing, the more strongly I feel that the time has come—I sense that maybe the 21st century will be the era in which we free the idea of leadership from the old prejudices and preconditions that have surrounded it for most of the 20th. Maybe instead of just turning the old pyramidal org chart upside down (you know, the old inverted triangle) it’s time to, at least conceptually, just flat-line the whole thing once and for all. If we’re getting out of the old-school hierarchical structure and into a more inclusive, creative, free-flowing, fun, and egalitarian approach to work, why limit leadership thinking and activity to a tiny slice of organizational life?
Now, ten years after the essay came out, we have made a lot of progress, and we still have work to do to make this our daily reality. Maybe after you read the pamphlet, it will become part of your reality, too. If we do it well, we will meet the challenge that Peter Koestenbaum put forward: “A well-led organization consists of nothing but leaders.”
What does this belief look like when it’s working? When he took office in April 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky challenged every Ukrainian to think of themselves as “the president of their country.” Secret #22 advocates for the same approach, applied to our company instead of a country. In the day-to-day, we want an organization in which a new busser wiping down a table will also be giving thought to the impact of their action on the whole organization; a place where a staff member working the counter understands that if they overhear a customer expressing a concern, we want them to gently jump in to turn things around; where everyone realizes that helping to make decisions about our organizational benefits plan or to comment on business trends is an important part of their work. A workplace where everyone knows not to settle for so-so, but, rather, to push ourselves—even if it is a bit more work in the moment—to “do the right thing.” I love the way Peter Block poses it:
We choose between Maintenance and Greatness.
We choose between Caution and Courage.
We choose between Dependency and Autonomy.
About ten years or so ago—shortly after Part 2, including Secret #22, came back from the printer—a businesswoman came to town from Utah. As I remember it, she owned more than a few stores and was already doing well, and in the spirit of self-improvement had flown in to do a week’s worth of training with ZingTrain. She’d arrived on a Sunday evening, and I’d seen her from afar for a minute on Monday, but I hadn’t actually run into her to give her a formal welcome. Very early the next morning, before we were actually open for business, I was sitting at the back corner table in the Next Door at the Deli doing my daily stint of journaling. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a tall woman walking towards me rather quickly, with purpose. Mind you, people walking rapidly towards you at 6:30 in the morning in most restaurant settings is rarely a good sign. Bracing myself to get bad news, I centered myself as best I could, and, trying to appear more alert than I actually was, looked up with a smile. She stopped a few feet from the table, smiled back, and stuck out her hand. Realizing quickly that this was our client, I introduced myself, and welcomed her. I started to apologize for not greeting her personally the previous day, but she enthusiastically interjected: “Don’t worry about it all! I'm just so happy to be here! I had a great day yesterday!” I thanked her—it was a high compliment coming from someone who had clearly accomplished as much as she had. “It’s great what you’re doing here,” she went on. “I love the culture! And you know, I’ve only been here one day, but I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out the secret to what you all are doing!”
Though I had titled the essays, tongue-in-cheek, as “Secrets” in the Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading books, I was a bit taken aback by her comment. I’ve long said that “the secret here is that there is no secret.” Still, I was curious to see what she’d concluded. “That’s great!” I said. “Tell me more!” She answered with confidence and enthusiasm: “Well, I know I’ve only been here one day. But I can tell. You’re just hiring all these young entrepreneurs and then turning them loose.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the reality was anything but. Mostly then, and now, we hire history majors like me muddling through life just as I had been so many years before. Or maybe English majors, high school students, college dropouts, people who’d been laid off from other industries and didn’t know what to do next, or retirees looking to stay busy. Of the 400 or so folks working in the ZCoB at the time, maybe half a dozen had come here because they aspired to be business people. Instead, I just smiled, thanked her for sharing her insight, and offered her my cell phone number in case she had any questions that I could be of help with.
After she left, I kept thinking about what she had said. A few weeks later, it hit me. Her inaccurate conclusion suddenly gave me clarity. Although I’d never thought of it that way, I suddenly saw that in a sort of inverted way she might be right. While the people we were hiring had not come to work at Zingerman’s as “aspiring entrepreneurs,” we had in essence “fooled her” into believing they were. We were teaching everyone we hired—regardless of job title, age, gender, race, seniority, or previous experience—how to think like a leader and a business person from the first day they started work.
What do most organizations do? Rather than teaching front line folks to think like leaders, they train them to “do their job”—to play their proper, much more narrowly defined role in the company. Direction and decision-making in that model come from the top, from the people whose “job” it is “to think” and make decisions. Everyone else follows orders. Whether it’s in business, in non-profits, or in countries, I will suggest that this old model—in which decision-makers are different from doers—does not work well. While it may appear to function for a while, in the long run, it is neither a healthy nor a holistic way to work. Power—“carbon” in the organizational ecosystem metaphor—leaves the cultural soil. Folks on the front lines focus on getting by rather than going for greatness. Over time, excellence and energy erode, slowly but surely causing the organizational equivalent of climate change. Cracks in the culture begin to appear, crises come with ever greater frequency, and coming up with solutions becomes more and more of a struggle.
I’d already been planning to write this piece for a few weeks now, but conveniently for my context, a few days ago historian Francis Fukuyama published a piece in The Atlantic referencing the repeated failures of this sort of hierarchical, autocratic, governance:
The weaknesses are of two sorts. First, the concentration of power in the hands of a single leader at the top all but guarantees low-quality decision making, and over time will produce truly catastrophic consequences. Second, the absence of public discussion and debate in “strong” states, and of any mechanism of accountability, means that the leader’s support is shallow, and can erode at a moment’s notice.
In Russia, this would describe Vladimir Putin. In Iran, it’s a small, closed group of mullahs. It’s also, I would suggest, in generally much gentler ways, what is still happening in the majority of American companies. Forty years ago, Robert Greenleaf made much the same point in Servant Leadership:
To be a lone chief atop a pyramid is abnormal and corrupting. None of us are perfect by ourselves, and all of us need the help and correcting influence of close colleagues … The pyramidal structure weakens informal links, dries up channels of honest reaction and feedback, and creates limiting chief vs. subordinate relationships which, at the top, can seriously penalize the whole organization.
In their new book, Humanocracy: Creating Organizations As Amazing As The People Inside Them, Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini (he’s Italian, so the name is pronounced “Mi-kay-leh”) suggest that the problem is not the individual leader: “What if the inhumanity of our organizations is symptomatic of something deeper, something that has nothing to do with any particular manager or organization?” It is very clear to me that a big factor of that “something deeper” is the belief that “leadership” is a job function for the people “in charge.” It’s so widely accepted that hardly anyone argues it. It’s just, like so many unhelpful beliefs, “the way it is.” Secret #22 supports the seemingly subversive belief that instead our work is to instill a leadership mindset in every person we employ. Like all changes in beliefs (see Secret #43 for the Recipe for Changing a Belief), this is a simple shift to speak aloud, but will likely be difficult to actually make real. The new belief? That we do not need to operate our organizations with a single strong all-powerful leader perched precariously at the top of a pyramid in politically-minded ways. Instead, Secret #22 says, we can create a setting in which everyone is expected to think and act like a leader.
Secret #22, conveniently for this essay has another connection to “Utah”—Utah Phillips. A folksinger, philosopher, poet, and anarchist, Phillips passed away in the third week of May 2008, at the age of 73. I had the honor of meeting him when he was dining at the Roadhouse a few months before his death. Phillips was both an insightful and inspirational figure, who also happened to be as witty as he was wise. It’s in great part due to something I heard in one of Phillips’ spoken word pieces that helped this new belief about leadership click into place. The story is in the Secret:
The incident in question occurred in 1916. In a rather interesting, though nearly forgotten, footnote in American history, a ferry full of free speech activists tried to dock in Everett, Washington. The local sheriff boarded the boat and demanded to know who the group’s leaders were. “We’re all leaders here!” was the men’s unified response. The statement was, seemingly, so provocative that the sheriff and his deputies immediately attacked. A dozen and a half people died in the ensuing violence.
As I suggest in Secret #22, “Had I only known Utah Phillips’ story when I was fifteen instead of fifty, or maybe if I’d studied American history, rather than Russian, it might not have taken me so long to get this glimpse of the obvious about leadership.”
It is a commonly held belief that having “too many bosses” will inevitably create chaos. It’s often, inaccurately, called “anarchy.” Ironically, the idea that everyone thinks and acts like a caring collaborative leader is exactly what anarchism is all about. There’s much more about this in the last piece in Part 2—Secret #29 is all about the application of anarchism to progressive business. Anarchism, despite the popular misconception, is all about organization. Over a century ago, Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta made the point: “The need for organization in social life . . . is so self-evident that it is mind-boggling that it could ever have been questioned.” What Utah Phillips, Malatesta and other anarchists I’d studied were advocating for was not chaos. Rather, it was the suggestion that everyone in an organization can and should be creatively and collaboratively acting like a leader. The same point I’ve tried to make in Secret #22.
When we do get people to think like leaders, to engage in the difficult work of collaboratively figuring out the right things to do, they begin to choose freely to participate in creating the organization of their future. Does that mean they all get their way? No, of course not. In this holistic and inclusive model of leadership, no one just “gets their way.” Not me, not Paul, not any of the other partners, not the new person we hired last Wednesday. What we do get is a chance to have a meaningful say in the organization of which we’re a part. And in the process, we gain access to a hugely positive font of personal energy that comes from making free choices the way any good leader would do.
So how do we make this switch happen? Part 1, Secret #12, shares how we do this through “Five Steps to Building an Organizational Culture”:
1. Teach it – Leadership, we know, is not innate; it needs to be taught. Back around the time we opened the Deli in the early ’80s, anarchist Howard Ehrlich wrote, “The process of empowering people in an organization requires a formal program of education.” We need, in that spirit, to teach leadership to everyone. Do we get it right all the time? Of course not. We do work at it, though. All of our leadership classes are open to everyone who works here. As Peter Koestenbaum says, “To teach is systemically to help others learn to think and act as leaders do and to integrate leadership intelligence into the achievement of organizational goals.”
2. Define it – This is the conversation that Secret #22 started for me—to make the case for an organization in which everyone is expected, from day one, to take responsibility for leadership. I share the expectation in the Welcome to ZCoB orientation class. Leaders, in this context, are people who care about the collective and act caringly; people who focus on serving the ecosystem, not their egos; people who, rather than just complaining, are willing to speak up and seek creative, constructive outcomes; visionaries, not vigilantes.
3. Live it – Formally we work to spread leadership thinking with systems like open book management, Bottom Line Change, Lean, open meetings, etc. It’s embedded in Stewardship and supported by Servant Leadership, as well as our Community Shares program and our commitment to having Staff Partners as part of the group that runs the ZCoB by consensus. Less formally, we can do this work in small but meaningful ways through casual conversations—sometimes I ask new staff what they think about big strategic issues we face, or share a bit of the stress I might feel about sales levels. In the process, I can help them experience the sorts of conversations that leaders are likely to have all the time. Their comments are almost always insightful. I also work to encourage folks to speak up and share ideas and concerns (awkward though it may feel) and encourage them to take the initiative to lead change. My hope is that we can create a workplace in which we can make real Maria Shriver’s call to collaborative action:
Be the difference. Your power is vast, and it’s within. Use it. … A place where active citizenship isn’t just something to put on a poster but rather where everyone learns early on that although none of us always get our way, everyone matters.
In the spirit of everyone taking full responsibility, “Living It” requires those without formal authority to engage as leaders. As Iranian author Roya Hakakian writes: “Those who wish to see democracy regain momentum around the world must do their part.”
4. Measure it – While I know we can do better in this, we do have a number of indirect measures. The number of people who come to huddles and the frequency with which people initiate Bottom Line Change are all factors. There are also the many ZCoBbers who teach classes but are not managers; front-line staff who participate on our cross-business committees figuring out our benefits plans, upholding customer service standards, implementing safety programs, supporting sustainability innovations, etc. The number of Community Share owners in the ZCoB is the highest ever right now at 229.
5. Reward it – This is something for all of us who make decisions about things like pay rates to pay attention to—to be sure that we are both formally and informally recognizing and rewarding those who step forward as positive leaders. Not the people who take potshots or critique without suggesting constructive alternatives, but those who (regardless of job title or formal authority) are willing to speak up, make suggestions, and help do the hard work to make meaningful change happen. Don’t underestimate your impact. Even small acts of appreciation can make a meaningful difference for someone who’s never before been in a leadership role. As Hamel and Zanini share, “When ‘ordinary’ employees are given the chance to learn, grow, and contribute, they’ll achieve extraordinary results.”
Speaking of extraordinary, here are some real-world examples of people who might typically have been on the periphery stepping up to lead in settings that are far riskier than what we experience in our organizations. While it might be easy to think they are completely unrelated to what we do at work, I believe the actions of these three young women exemplify Peter Block’s call to choose greatness, act in courage, and think freely. Tetyana Burianova is a 26-year-old Ukrainian who, before the war, organized rave parties. A year later, her life is very different: “Right now, it feels inappropriate to go clubbing. I do want to go back to my former life but only after the war. While there is war, my life, like everyone’s, is only about volunteering. … We are making a new Ukraine.” Or there’s this from a 16-year-old high school student (staying anonymous for her own safety) who’s been out demonstrating in Iran in recent weeks: “What good am I if I simply sit outraged at home? Myself and fellow students across Iran have decided to stand in protest on the streets this week. I’ll do it even if I have to now hide it from my parents.” Closer to home, I saw this story about Jennifer Jones in Georgia, a Morehouse School of Medicine PhD student, who finds herself in a situation in which new voting rules have made it significantly more challenging for her to be able to vote. Her willingness to choose leadership is inspiring.
My grandmother marched with Dr Martin Luther King; my family fought for this. I am the next generation that she was fighting for, and I am not about to let up. I will not risk getting to cast my vote. I will not stop fighting, and I will not be complacent in the difficulty of this process.
The risks any of us take to step forward to lead in our organizations are, practically, much lower than what these three young women have done. Still, speaking up, sharing hopes and dreams, asking awkward questions in an organization of which you’re “just a small part” or a “new person” do make a meaningful difference. They are powerfully effective acts of leadership coming from people who are clearly not in charge. As Stef Kerska, who once worked at the Bakehouse said about Secret #22,
[The] 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. … It’s so easy to say that we’re all leaders but to experience it daily is pretty powerful.
Back when Utah Phillips was a young man, pamphlets were one of the most effective ways of sharing radical ideas. What we now think of as “social media” was, back then, printed on paper and sold at relatively affordable prices in order to get the concepts inside widely disseminated. The newly-published pamphlet of Secret #22, ten years after it first came out, could just be the push someone you know needs to take the lead. Buy a couple, give them to some key staffers in your company, and then meet them for coffee to talk about the contents. As Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini write, “If you’re ready to build an organization that’s fit for human beings and fit for the future, we invite you to start right here, right now.”