Ari on Business, Business

Leading Towards a New Way to Work

Paul and I have always operated with the outlook that we, as owners and leaders, need the people who work here far more than they need us. If no one had ever chosen to work here, and then decided to do great work once they came on board, we’d probably still be struggling to keep a small, twenty-nine-seat sandwich business going in a hard-to-find-building in a not-very-good neighborhood. But clearly a lot of good things have happened over the last thirty years, and really all of it only because a lot of smart, hard-working people have given us the chance to lead. Despite the illusions (or is it delusions?) of some people who sit at the top of corporate org charts, the reality is that no leader will accomplish anything productive without colleagues who willingly choose to go wherever their (singular and plural) vision says they’re going. And if our new staff members are kind, caring, and intrigued enough to entrust their futures to us, we both believe we’d better take the time to meet them, hear their hopes and history, and then, in turn, share our story, our dreams, expectations, and passions with them in a productive and personal way. Leaders without followers are most definitely destined to fail; they usually end up being nothing more than barely-heard-of historical footnotes.

The End of the Old Model?
The more I work, learn, listen to others, write, and reflect, the more passionate I’ve become about it all. In my dreams at least, many people in the world are now ready to find that sort of better way to work. I want to believe that the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009 served as a warning, a sort of Hurricane Katrina for the country’s socioeconomic existence, a naturally occurring crisis that shows us in extreme form that our system isn’t working. My hope is that the crisis got people paying attention and opened their minds to a more positive, more sustainable approach to business, leadership, and organizational life in general. I’m probably overly optimistic on that front—most people fall quickly back into what they were used to as soon as the short-term crisis subsides. Change isn’t easy for most folks—as Dawna Markova describes it in her book I Will Not Die and Unlived Life, “we become imprisoned in our own rigidities.” But the change that I believe is happening is going to go forward nevertheless. That change will lead to a workplace that is both rewarding to be part of and also more productive. It’s about working in synch with the 12 Natural Laws of Business ; crafting an organization that’s focused on quality, care, and collaboration; building a community that benefits the greater good, a place that’s more fun while still functioning effectively in the field of the free market.

Wendell Berry wrote, in a letter to the editor of The Progressive magazine in the fall of 2010, “It is true that the industrialization of virtually all forms of production and service has filled the world with ‘jobs’ that are meaningless, demeaning and boring—as well as inherently destructive. I don’t think there is an argument for the existence of such work, and I wish for its elimination, but even its reduction calls for economic changes not yet defined, let alone advocated, by the ‘left’ or the ‘right.'” I agree. So, too, I’m sure, would most of the anarchists that I quote in my book, Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part 2: A Lapsed Anarchists Approach to Being a Better Leader. Berry added, “The old and honorable idea of ‘vocation’ is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of work for which we are particularly fitted.” That, to a T, is how I feel, and I feel fortunate to feel that way.

The predominance of bad work has been building for a long time. The anarchists wanted to end it in a bad way. Alexander Berkman wrote: “It stands to reason that a person can give the best of himself only when his interest is in his work, when he feels a natural attraction to it, when he likes it. Can you expect the modern drudge in the ugly huge factory to make beautiful things?”

Skip forward to our own era where, unfortunately, bad work is still the norm. Poet David Whyte, in Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, quotes Brother David Steindl-Rast, telling him as he struggled to find his way in life that, “The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest. The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness. You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while.”

I think he gave David Whyte some pretty sound advice. Bad work is almost always exhausting; people finish it feeling physically and emotionally drained: doing less bad work is only slightly less exhausting than doing more. Bad work, to use a technical term, just plain sucks. I don’t want to do it, and I don’t want anyone else to have to do it either. Bad work is about people being treated as if they have nothing insightful to offer, as if they know next to nothing, or are “too stupid to understand upper-level activity.” Bad work is about people being regularly managed in ways that are at best disrespectful and, at worst, downright abusive. It’s about people going to work every day in settings that aren’t in synch with their values—going “into the closet” when you go to work is a hard way to go. At best, bad work is tolerable but it’s never, ever terrific.

Now, I know that just wanting bad work to come to an end isn’t going to change the world overnight. But why not think big, right? I really believe that the approaches that we’ve learned and adapted and teach—taken from insightful, passionate people like Robert Greenleaf, Peter Block, Ron Lippett, Anese Cavanaugh, Emma Goldman, Gustav Landauer, and others—really can reconfigure the way the world thinks.

The Start of a New Era
Good work is life altering, fulfilling, and fun. Good work is about learning, laughing, growing, all the while earning enough money to make your dreams come true. It’s about collaborating with people you care about and who share your values, contributing something positive to the people and the community around you. It’s fun, not something you flee from. It’s a place you want to be, even if you rightfully have other places you want to go. Good work is about positive energy—both feeling it and building it. Good work is about doing something you believe in, work that you care about in a workplace that cares about you. It’s endlessly sustainable, not energy-sapping. While people might certainly, on any given day, go home tired after doing good work, they’re rarely spiritually exhausted. When we’re into what we’re doing, giving it everything we’ve got, learning and laughing even under duress, the experience is likely to be energizing, even if, in the moment, physically tiring.

At its upper reaches, good work can be one of the most rewarding things one ever engages in. If we build our business in sustainable ways; if we treat everyone with respect regardless of title, background, race, religion, or resume; if we encourage people to be themselves and help them get there; if we work to bring out the best in everyone; if we convey to people how much difference their work actually makes and then simultaneously teach them how to make a difference in the way that their workplace is run; if we keep everyone learning and laughing; if we work the numbers so that everyone wins from a financial standpoint… then we create very good work. When we get good work right, we make a reality of Emma Goldman’s once radical and, at the time, seemingly fantastical belief in “the freest possible expression of all the latent powers of the individual… [which is] only possible in a state of society where man is free to choose the mode of work, the conditions of work, and the freedom to work. One to whom the making of a table, the building of a house, or the tilling of the soil, is what the painting is to the artist and the discovery to the scientist—the result of inspiration, of intense longing, and deep interest in work as a creative force.”