Everything that follows is, in the context of what is happening in Ukraine, shared in humility—a small bit of my own struggle with how to show up at work every day when the news is filled, as it has been far too many times before, with stories of terrible tragedy being suffered by so many innocent people. In this case, it’s Ukraine; in other instances, it’s been individuals, in other situations still it’s entire groups of people who are attacked. When I read about what’s happening, my mind runs the gamut of emotions from anger, to sadness, fear, helplessness, and even hopelessness. When I feel most down, I return to the words of the Dalai Lama, who once offered: “There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’ No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful the experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.”
Last Thursday evening I sat down to write my weekly note to the ZCoB staff. As some of you know, and as I described at the end of the essay about hope in “Working Through Hard Times,” I began writing the notes at the start of the pandemic, just short of two years ago now. In the interest of keeping people connected and communicating in a moment in which it felt like our world was collapsing, it seemed the right thing to do. Based on what folks have told me, the notes have been of help to many people struggling, as most of us have been, to keep their hope levels reasonably high through some very hard times. I wrote one of the notes to the ZCoB every evening for the first hundred nights of the pandemic, and then shifted to doing one weekly, every Thursday evening since. Last Thursday was the day that we learned that Russia had attacked Ukraine.
On the surface level, what’s happening right now in Kyiv and Kharkiv might, directly at least, have little to do with our work. Work that, I’ll add, in the context of full-on horrible violence, seems insignificant at best, and in the moment, almost irrelevant. And yet, as has been true with every tragedy that has happened in our forty years in business—war, famine, flood, hurricanes, race-based violence, school shootings, terrorist attacks, earthquakes and more—the terrible situation in Ukraine has everything to do with humanity. It’s important for us to keep doing what we do, to provide continuity, care, and service to our community. To continue through the seeming chaos of the world to offer meaningful work and lasting livelihoods to the many hundreds of people who depend on us.
All of which, in less fully formed language, was swirling around my mind when I sat down at my safe spot at the chef’s counter at the Roadhouse to try to figure out what to say to our staff last Thursday evening. Whatever small bit of pressure I feel here in the privilege and safety of southeast Michigan is NOTHING compared to what people in Ukraine (and in war zones in Ethiopia, Syria, and also unsafe neighborhoods here at home, etc.) are experiencing. Still, the news of the invasion, for me and most everyone I know, was devastating. I felt at a loss for words, helpless, bordering on hopeless. And yet, part of good leadership I’ve learned over the years is the work of getting grounded enough to communicate productively in a way that at least resembles the right thing even under duress. Feeling unsure, I opted to be open about my emotion and uncertainty and share what was in my head and my heart. Here’s the beginning of what I ended up putting in the note:
I don’t think I can write this weekly note without acknowledging the horror of what started late last night in Ukraine. Each of us are impacted in different ways by different events. In the interest of openness, this one hits me hard. As has happened far too many times in the world, innocent people are the victims of violence. I have the same terrible feeling in my stomach today that I had when George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were killed. The same feeling as when the civil war in Ethiopia started up again last year. The same feeling as 9/11 and when I hear or read the history of enslavement, of the Trail or Tears, of lynchings or the Holocaust … stories of innocent individuals or groups attacked because of their skin color, their religion, or in this case, the country that they live in, for no reason other than the unmanaged malice of their attackers. I’ve had Ukraine in my mind all day. I catch myself tearing up when I’m not expecting it. I try to put myself into the place of people in Ukraine as I have tried as best I can (knowing that I can’t really ever come close to actually knowing) what it’s like to be the victim of this sort of attack. I imagine it much as if Canadian planes were bombing southeastern Michigan and tanks and attack helicopters were moving towards Ann Arbor and there was nowhere to hide our kids or our parents or our pets …
I wish I knew what to do to help people in Ukraine, but of course I don’t. All I can think to do is to continue to do what we all do so well every day—to model the exact opposite of this violence by continuing to treat every human being with dignity and respect, to help those who have less, to work to rebalance systemic imbalances, and to bring kindness and care to all we do … At least in the tiny spot on the planet that we occupy, we can show what’s possible in the most positive of ways. I’m sorry to bring anyone down by writing this, but it is the reality of the world today. Please keep people over there (and everyone else, here in our own community and around the world, who is being victimized by hatred and violence) in your thoughts and in your hearts.
It’s been a few days since I wrote that, and by the time you get this, more innocent people will have lost their lives. I still can’t write this without starting to cry again, but in an attempt to honor Michelle Obama’s observation that “Grief and resilience live together,” I pushed myself to find a positive perspective on this painful reality and address it here. While we alone can’t stop the killing, what we can do is make sure that the way we work in our own organizations will reduce the odds of this happening again elsewhere in the world. Our actions are small, but if enough of us act, the impact is not insignificant; the more we model caring engagement in our own workplaces, the kinder place the world will be. Let’s not wait. I don’t want to find myself saying, as one brave peace protester in Moscow did last week, “We have missed the moment. We are to blame for what is happening. And myself personally.”
If you don’t know the recent history of what’s happening in Ukraine, eight years ago this past month, the Ukrainian people threw out the then Russian-sponsored, illicitly-installed president and, in what quickly came to be known as the Revolution of Dignity, created an open and democratic construct for their country. As I’ve struggled over the last week with what we can do here, I keep coming back to the idea that one of the best, and maybe only, things we can do is to continue to model what it means to work in ways that are the opposite of autocracy, the opposite of violence, the opposite of destruction. Framed more positively, it would be to humbly attempt to show that peace, positive beliefs, kindness, and creativity can really work. To make the way we talk about each other, about ourselves, and about the world around us, into stories that, as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says, “can repair broken dignity.” In the process, I believe, we can make small Revolutions of Dignity in our organizations right now.
Once upon a time, I majored in Russian history when I was in school at the University of Michigan. Many people have asked me over the years what in the world drew me to study such a seemingly obscure subject. The quick answer was quite simply that I thought it was really interesting. Med school and law school were more of what my family would have preferred; both had the promise of higher income, but I wasn’t very enthused about either. History, on the other hand, fascinated me. That fascination, as you can tell if you read this regularly, remains today. The history of Russia, as I read about all those years ago, has long been dominated by people very much like Vladimir Putin. Author Vladimir Sorokin writes:
In Russia, power is a pyramid. This pyramid was built by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century—an ambitious, brutal tsar overrun by paranoia and a great many other vices. With the help of his personal army … he cruelly and bloodily divided the Russian state into power and people, friend and foe, and the gap between them became the deepest of moats. His [experiences] convinced him that the only way to rule the hugeness of Russia was by becoming an occupier of this enormous zone. The occupying power had to be strong, cruel, unpredictable, and incomprehensible to the people. The people should have no choice but to obey and worship it. And a single person sits at the peak of this dark pyramid, a single person possessing absolute power and a right to all.
What drew me to Russian history though was not its consistent consolidation of power at the top of that pyramid, but rather the courage of the people on the edges who pushed back against it. I wrote my undergraduate thesis at U of M on Soviet dissidents. I studied anarchism, including the Ukrainian anarchist general Nestor Makhno who fought the Bolsheviks at the time of the Russian revolution. I was drawn to the various groups that lost out to the Bolsheviks in the chaotic years after the Tsar stepped down in 1917, and to the study of the ethnic minorities Stalin so harshly persecuted. (Our 40th anniversary, March 15, is also the 105th anniversary of the day in 1917 that the Tsar abdicated.) While my attention went to those on the edge, the main story of Russian history has stayed, sadly, concentrated at the center. Sorokin says:
Paradoxically, the principle of Russian power hasn’t even remotely changed in the last five centuries. I consider this to be our country’s main tragedy. Our medieval pyramid has stood tall for all that time, its surface changing, but never its fundamental form. And it’s always been a single Russian ruler sitting at its peak … Judging by recent events, the idea of restoring the Russian Empire has entirely taken possession of Putin.
Hierarchy and the abuse of power are not of course uniquely Russian issues. Every country, every company, and almost every human (including me) has struggled with power and authority. Handling power with grace, putting it back into the “cultural soil” of a country or a company, is the exception, not the rule. Back in the era in which the leadup to the Russian Revolution was already underway, Emma Goldman wrote, “Those in authority have and always will abuse their power. And the instances when they do not do so are as rare as roses growing on icebergs.” When one person holds all the power—whether it’s a business owner or an autocrat—problems will pretty surely follow for all involved. Sorokin says:
The Pyramid of Power poisons the ruler with absolute authority. It shoots archaic, medieval vibrations into the ruler and his retinue, seeming to say: “you are the masters of a country whose integrity can only be maintained by violence and cruelty; be as opaque as I am, as cruel and unpredictable, everything is allowed to you, you must call forth shock and awe in your population, the people must not understand you, but they must fear you.
The perversity of the Pyramid of Power lies in the fact that he who sits at its peak broadcasts his psychosomatic condition to the country’s entire population. But he’s the one who’s doomed because the world of freedom and democracy is far bigger than his dark and gloomy lair.
Ironically, in a gentler form, the model of governance in Russia was not dissimilar from the typical ways of running modern businesses. The man who started the idea of Servant Leadership, Robert Greenleaf, identified the same problem as Vladimir Sorokin. Greenleaf says:
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 1994 book, written three years after the fall of the Soviet Union, The End of Bureaucracy and the Rise of the Intelligent Organization (a book that had a huge impact on both me and Paul) Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot remind us, “The bureaucratic organization is structured as a pyramid with an absolute boss on top,” a model, which the Pinchots point out, gives “bosses a monopoly of power over the work lives of their subordinates.” I’m not suggesting that any American business leader—no matter how monopolistic their power might be—is invoking violence in the way that Vladimir Putin is right now. And yet, I know, the urge to consolidate and use power, the tendency to let ego take precedence over the health of the greater ecosystem, is pretty likely present in all of us.
Edith Eva Eger survived the concentration camps during the Holocaust, one of the many other times in history when a person atop a pyramid of power caused enormous destruction and the loss of many millions of lives. Eger went on to become a positive psychologist, author, and inspiring speaker who is still active today at the age of 94. She reminds us: “There is a little Hitler in all of us.” Which means in the moment, that although it’s easy to hate the perpetrator of the violence in Ukraine, there is likely a little piece of Putin—an excess of ego, a desire to take charge and be in control—hidden away in all of us. There’s not a lot any of us can do about Putin, but there is a lot we can do about the latter. There are definitely, I’m not ashamed to admit, many times when I have wanted to just tell everyone what to do. Learning to resist that temptation, and having both systems and personal practices in place that can help keep us from doing it, is the beginning of what can then be further developed into our organizational Revolution of Dignity.
The key is to really make dignity a daily reality; to not just say the right words, but to do the right work, so that dignity is the order of the day for everyone in our organizations. And that when we slip—as we will inevitably do—we can recover with grace, relatively quickly acting to restore whatever dignity was diminished. As Ukrainian poet and musician Serhiy Zhadan says, “History is written, of course, above, but it’s lived below.” So, what then would dignity be in the workplace? Although it will surely continue to evolve, here’s my current thinking:
Honoring the essential humanity of the person we interact with
Taking time to embrace each person’s past, to learn who they are, to acknowledge their fears and insecurities, and to hear their hopes and dreams. Our work in this sense is to own and encourage everyone’s inherent uniqueness.
Be authentic in our interactions
A revolution of day-to-day dignity means being real ourselves and also giving everyone we work with the opportunity to be real in a meaningful way as well. (This does not mean unhelpfully dumping one’s feelings onto others in an inappropriate, boundary-ignoring way.)
Having a meaningful say
Dignity in the day-to-day workplace means we make sure everyone has a meaningful say in what’s going on around them. It means being able to raise one’s hand to raise concerns in a way that can actually influence our decisions.
Begin every interaction with positive beliefs
Believing the best about everyone even if we’re not happy with what they’re doing or saying. To assume good intent even when work performance may not be up to par. To begin with the belief that even if people aren’t succeeding, they do want to do their best.
A commitment to helping everyone get to greatness
In this context, honoring authenticity and each person’s unique humanity, each individual then gets to decide what “greatness” means for them. That doesn’t mean everyone can just do what they want, but it does mean that we will have a meaningful conversation about what’s on their minds. If what they see as greatness is aligned with our vision, values, or sense of reality, we can get moving together towards a positive shared future. And if it’s not, we can have a caring conversation in a dignified way from which we can still come away with peaceful, win-win solutions.
Creating some sense of meaningful equity
I’m not suggesting that we will divide everything equally among everyone. CEOs and new staff who just started work last Saturday may not make the same salary, but still, we can try to balance our ecosystems so that everyone is doing at least ok, and that we’re working to advance everyone’s cause, not just to extract more for people at the top of the pyramid. As physician Paul Farmer, who sadly passed away last month, said, “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.”
This focus on dignity, I’ve learned, must be directed inward as well—we need to do for ourselves each of the six items above. Embrace our imperfect humanity, speak our minds constructively, lead and live with positive beliefs, go for greatness in all we do, and engage our own power (as Vladimir Sorokin says: “Everyone in Russia must awaken the citizen within himself.”). If we don’t treat ourselves with dignity, our harsh inner voice will make itself heard by those around us, either through our energy or through our actions.
If—or more accurately, when—we fall short in this work, it would be easy in many places to just ignore the injustice of what has happened. And yet the consequences are more serious than they may seem. Peter Koestenbaum writes, “To destroy the dignity of a human being is evil.” A community in which dignity is both expected and enacted every day will still fall short; but the bad things that happen are a whole lot more likely to be corrected caringly and relatively quickly. After reading the essay I wrote about dignity in “Working Through Hard Times,” my good friend Melvin Parson, who created and leads We the People Opportunity Farm in Ypsilanti, put up the sign you see in the photo above at his farm. And as Melvin does, we will be able to say, “Kindness and Dignity Lives Here.”
We have a good start on all this work, I can see, through the work we already aspire to implement: Servant Leadership, Stewardship, our Courageous Conversations class, our Training Compact, our commitment to diversity, Bottom Line Change®, Lean, Open Book Management, open meetings, consensus decision-making, spreading ownership more widely, learning people’s names, living our 10-4 Rule, and effective energy management all contribute to making a Revolution of Dignity a real-life reality.
Ultimately, it’s up to us. We can create our own organizational Revolutions of Dignity. We can act from humbleness and work for the greater good. Instead of indignation and domination, we can push for inclusion and diversity. Instead of carelessly demeaning a coworker or customer, we can consciously work to make dignity simply what we all do.
Veronika Melkozerova, editor of The New Voice of Ukraine, posted this a few days ago about the terrible attack that Russia has unleashed:
It’s about more than Ukraine. It’s a contest between democracy and autocracy, freedom and dictatorship, whose implications will scatter across the world. It’s not our fight alone. So please don’t leave us alone to fight it.
I hope and pray that by the time you read this, peace will have returned to Ukraine. And that here at home, where we have far more opportunity to influence our outcomes, that dignity is a bit closer to being reality in every interaction we take. We can work for democracy and dignity, to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 statement that “All labor has dignity” more and more what everyone experiences in our businesses. If we do succeed in making it a reality, these Revolutions of Dignity can spread outwards from our own organizations.