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Adding to the List of Natural Laws of Business

#20: You need high hope to get to greatness

black and white photo of a person looking up at the sunny sky

Fourteen years before we opened the Deli in 1982, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton went out west to travel. In 2019, writer and permaculturist Fred Bahnson published a thoughtful piece about that trip, entitled “On the Road with Thomas Merton.” Aside from the fact that I have long admired and sought to learn from Father Merton’s words and worldview, one line in Bahnson’s essay particularly caught my attention. It added a bit of context to our own struggles here, so many years later in the summer of 2021: “Life,” Bahnson said, creating the setting for those of us who weren’t there, “seemed to be unraveling everywhere that year. The date was May 6, 1968.”

I can’t say with any certainty that I can even come close to knowing how Thomas Merton felt at the age of 53, watching the world around him going to pieces. I can imagine it might bear a bit of resemblance to how many of us have been feeling for a while now. Life sure seems to have been coming apart over the last 18 months at a pace that far exceeds the everyday unraveling that is part of human existence. These are certainly not easy times for anyone. Paradoxically though, it’s on the days during which our ability to stay hopeful is most challenged, that we as leaders need to find ways to build meaningful hope for the future more than ever. That is exactly what Thomas Merton managed to do.

Thomas Merton is best known for his work done while a monk at the Gethsemane Monastery in Bardstown, Kentucky, but he was actually born half a world away, in the Pyrenees mountains of southwest France. His father was a painter from New Zealand and his mother an American Quaker artist. The family moved back to the U.S. to escape the horrors of WWI, another period of history in which hope levels were severely challenged for so many. Merton’s own life was difficult, too; his mother died of cancer when he was six, and his father passed away ten years later when Merton was still only sixteen. And yet, despite all that, Thomas Merton managed to find a way to become a voice for peace, wisdom, love, humility, and collaboration for most of his adult life. I imagine him drawing on the challenges of his childhood when he wrote, “You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”

No matter how many advantages we may have in life, it’s become clear to me that we all struggle to stay centered. For me, it’s a daily—often, hourly—challenge. The other morning, I found my mind moving a lot closer to that feeling of “overwhelm” than I like it to get. As I wrote on the subject last summer, I try hard to note the early signs and head it off before it gets to the crest of the hill—once we cross over, our hearts and minds start racing, and it’s hard to manage very productively. To help myself get grounded that morning, I decided while journaling to make a list of some of the things that were contributing to the chaos in my head. It only took me about two minutes to fill half a page with the assorted challenges that we’ve worked—and are still working now—to overcome during the course of the pandemic. While writing it out as I did might well have sent me spinning into despair, I was surprised to find that putting everything down on paper actually gave me hope. It seems counterintuitive, but having reflected on all this a bit, I realize it makes sense. Although denial might seem at first like a safer strategy for coping with the craziness of our lives, it’s often the act of owning our challenges—acknowledging the pain, anxiety, and fear we feel—that can actually help us get centered in the eye of the storm. 

In the organizational ecosystem metaphor I’ve been working with, hope is the sun. In that context, writing the list allowed me to part the dark emotional clouds that had been swirling in my head, and helped me see the hope that was still there shining in the distance. Reflecting further, I realized that there’s an anagram in the word “cloud”—move the “l” over three spots to the right and you wind up with the word “could.” Making peace with the problems, learning how to keep them from overwhelming us, can actually help us shift our mindset into positive possibilities. I started my journaling that morning feeling anxious, frustrated, adrift, with more despair in my mental air than I’m accustomed to. I finished half an hour later, shockingly, more hopeful. As Chloe Valdery writes, we can move forward in part by “embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past.”

When I started to study hope six or seven years ago, it quickly became clear that even though I knew little about the subject, it was hugely important. While I’d not seen it written about in a business book, every study I read showed how much better human beings—in sports, in schools, in the workplace—do when they have higher levels of hope. Conversely, human beings struggle when hope levels are low. The two main pieces I wrote about hope are in Secrets #44 and #45 in Part 4, The Power of Beliefs in Business. As I studied, it registered that, much to my chagrin, on bad days I had unwittingly worked against our values and our vision by crushing the hope of people I cared about. How? Even when our intentions are good, it’s really not that hard to do: dismissing new ideas out of hand, cynicism, eye rolls, failing to be a good listener, leading with negative beliefs … It’s a long list. They’re things nearly all of us have done when we’re having a tough day, or are behaving, as mindfulness expert Ellen Langer says, “mindlessly.” 

I came to see that I had also done a lot of work to raise hope. There’s much more in the two Secrets #44 and #45, but in the moment here I’ll mention that visioning, positive beliefs, clear expectations, recognition of work well done, kindness, positive energy, heartfelt appreciation, and others you’ve read about in this enews are all on that list. 

Over the last six years of studying hope and imperfectly implementing what I’ve learned, a few of the key things I’ve come to realize are: 

  1. 1. Hope is a huge factor in organizational (and community) health everywhere.
  2. 2. It’s incredibly easy to either crush hope or raise it.
  3. 3. Few leaders are trained to weave hope into their daily work. 
  4. 4. Building hope in healthy ways is one of the easiest ways I know to enhance organizational culture.

Hope levels are so important, I’ve come to understand, that hope belongs on the list of additional Natural Laws that I’ve only, of late, learned to honor:

Natural Law #20:
You need high hope to get to greatness.

The inverse is also true. Without hope, it’s almost impossible to grow—as individuals or as organizations—in healthy ways. When I look at groups of all types, all sizes, all genres, in all geographies, no one gets to grounded, sustainable, lasting greatness without high hope. 

As I mentioned above, in the organizational ecosystem metaphor (email me for a copy of the drawing), hope is the sun. Without it, nothing, we know, will grow. Plants will naturally grow towards the sun. The metaphor helped me understand what, in hindsight, has become obvious. Humans will do the same for hope. People will work to go where they find hope. Hopeless people will rarely do remarkable (in the good sense of the word) work. I’m not blaming them—most have been beaten down by society; had their sun blocked by socio-economic systems that create suffering, by endemic poverty, by bad news on the news, by the violence and negative beliefs that are so easy to find. Like plants, people will grow in the direction they feel hopeful—if we do our work well, that would be our organizational vision—a more caring community, etc. History quickly shows though that people will also grow towards hope emanating from what are clearly negative and destructive sources. If we want to grow in good ways, if we want to keep moving our organizations in the right direction for us, we need to provide positive hope to the folks who have come to work with us. 

When times are tough, great leaders lead with hope. Thomas Merton made that happen in his own life. It’s not about naïveté—it’s about knowing how to move forward through challenges we face to get to a more positive future. As historian Howard Zinn says:

TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

If you look at Secret #45, you’ll see more about what I came to call “The Six-Pointed Hope Star”:

  1. 1. Help people see a better future.
  2. 2. Help people see how they might get to that future.
  3. 3. Show people how much they matter.
  4. 4. Help people see how much their work matters.
  5. 5. Help people see how small steps are the keys to success.
  6. 6. Show people how they fit into a larger whole.

In the essay, there’s much more on how to make all of these happen in our daily lives, including a good bit of detail about how we practice these here at Zingerman’s. As I read, reflected, and wrote about what I was learning, it became clear to me that doing all six for each person on every shift we worked with them wasn’t really all that hard. Even if I could do two or three per person per day, that would make for meaningful progress. Building hope, if we work at it, is not a lot of extra work, but don’t confuse easy with insignificant. Hope makes a huge difference in people’s daily lives. 

To be clear, none of this work is recommending we rely on some sort of naïve “happy talk.” I’m talking about real, grounded, meaningful hope—a belief in a better future, a solid sense of how we can get there, how each of our contributions count, etc. Hope, in the way I’m writing about it here, is not about closing our eyes, clicking our heels, and hoping that we land back in Kansas. It’s not about luck and it’s not about buying lottery tickets. Rather, it’s about embracing the issues at hand and then figuring out how to get to a better tomorrow, together. As I wrote in Part 4, “Our responsibility as leaders is to help create more of those moments and to then act to make those moments of hope matter.”

Much of what I wrote about in Part 4 is about how we as leaders can raise the hope levels of the people we work with. In these trying times though, it can be hard for us as leaders to keep our own hope levels high. Natural Law #20, like all the Natural Laws, holds true for all of us. If we’re struggling to keep our own hope levels high, we too will have a hard time getting to the greatness we’re committed to going for. And let’s face it, even the strongest, most resilient, resourceful, and well-connected leaders, in hard times (like these) are likely to have their hope levels wane. It’s definitely what was happening to me when I sat down to journal the other morning, and I’m imagining that it might have been playing out in Thomas Merton’s mind too when he took that trip out west back in the spring of 1968.

How can we get our own hope levels back up? We can self-manage our way through the six elements of the Hope Star for ourselves. Doing it regularly helps me hold course, to breathe deep and continue to believe, as Emma Goldman once wrote, “Out of the chaos, the future emerges in harmony and beauty.” There’s much more in the essays in Part 4, but here are some things that are high on my own list of late, what we might consider a good way to boost the equivalent of our emotional “Vitamin D” every day: 

Get around hopeful people – Whether it’s in person, online, through books, Ted Talks, or podcasts. One of the ways I do this is by calling friends—as I wrote about in “Working Through Hard Times.” Steering clear of cynics, not watching too much news, spending time with people who can both embrace the challenges ahead and still move caringly and collaboratively forward … I practice all of these almost daily. They help.

Take positive action – As Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.” Doing small things for the better makes a big difference and one or two small steps can help us push past the clouds and get us into a more hopeful state of mind.

Own our choices – As British writer Kate Davies says, “Intrinsic hope is a choice we can each make every moment of our lives.” As hard as stressful circumstances can make our days, and as hard as it can be to overcome social barriers, ill health, staff shortages, or supply line disruptions, we still have the ability to opt for hope. Chloe Valdary says, “Regardless of your situation, you always have the power to choose. This is what distinguishes us as human beings: the power to transcend our instincts. A leopard cannot change his spots, but a human can change his behavior.”

Seek the beauty – My own hope increases regularly by simply working with such wonderful artisan food, by appreciating the craft of the artisans we buy from, and the care and commitment of the folks I get to work with. Seeing the beauty in our own imperfect existences is part of the process as well. As Thomas Merton’s spiritual collaborator Joan Chittister said, “It’s the beauty within us that makes it possible for us to recognize the beauty around us.”

Act with generosity and kindness – The “3 and Out” (give three meaningful compliments, one right after the other) or SBA (stop, breathe, appreciate) exercises are good ways to get grounded by giving. Same goes for forgiveness. In tough times, it’s easy to blame, or to fall into bitterness and frustration. But as ethicist Lewis Smedes says, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Giving more to others, I’m regularly reminded in doing, brightens our own hope levels. As Booker T. Washington wrote, “If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”

Learn and teach – It can be hard to muster the energy and make the time to do these during tough times, but either or both are pretty much guaranteed to raise your hope levels in a hurry. Every time I teach our orientation class for new staff, I come away reinspired by how amazing the new ZCoBbers are. Every time I read a good book, I learn things to shed more light on life, and how to live that life more meaningfully and effectively.

Is it naïve to be spending so much time here on hope when there are so many other pressing issues at hand? Not at all. I’ve come to understand, hope is one of the most important things we can have in our heads. Understanding Natural Law #20 may be more essential now, in this challenging summer of 2021, than at maybe any other time in my long leadership life. When we have hope, we can almost always keep pushing forward. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Thinking of hope as the sun has helped me understand that hope is essentially the equivalent of solar power in our organizations. The benefit is high, it’s eminently sustainable, and without it, we know from the Natural Law, we will never get to the greatness to which we aspire.

Thomas Merton passed away in December, 1968. Before he died, Merton published a short piece called “A Small Message of Hope.” In doing so, he built up the hope levels of many others. The inspirational and insightful writer Parker Palmer was inspired by Merton’s message. Decades after Merton’s death, he said of Merton:

Forty years later, I’m still reading, still finding friendship, love, and rescue—essential elements in serving as a messenger of hope. Imparting hope to others has nothing to do with exhorting or cheering them on. It has everything to do with relationships that honor the soul, encourage the heart, inspire the mind, quicken the step, and heal the wounds we suffer along the way.

It is my hope that in sharing these learnings, hope levels in caring organizations can be raised to help folks, even in these trying times, to hold course, and to sustain themselves even while they are suffering from the consequences of the current construct of the world. Here’s to good things to come!


*** 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!

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