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Hope Is in the Air—How Do We Keep It There?

Thinking about how to make hope part of our regular leadership regimens

A year ago, on Tuesday March 10 of 2020, we hosted our annual Jelly Bean Jump Up dinner at the Roadhouse to raise money for Safehouse Center. Anxiety was in the air around news of COVID-19, but the dinner went well anyway. I breathed a small sigh of relief that evening, but the relief, as you know, didn’t last long. The next day the world as we knew it kind of came apart.

Hope, in the organizational ecosystem metaphor I’ve been building, is the sun. And on March 11, 2020, the skies around Ann Arbor—and most of the country—grew very, very dark. It was clear that a big storm was coming.

In the best of times, having hope is hugely important. In the worst of times—of the sort the world has been going through over the last year—it’s absolutely essential. We know, as Brené Brown writes, that “Hopelessness is dangerous because it leads to feelings of powerlessness.” Conversely, as I put in Secret #44 in Part 4, hope is “an important and strategically sound part of building a successful business.” Over the course of the last year, I’ve regularly heard people reporting that “everything will be different after the pandemic.” The statement sounds good, but meaningful change will happen only if, and when, we consciously commit to it. If we were to put together a short-list of important post-pandemic changes to make, we might consider making the building of hope part of our regular leadership routines—I believe that our worlds would be better for it.

Last week I was reminded once again of how hugely powerful hope—even in small ways—can be. On Thursday evening, about 9:30, I sent out my regular email update to everyone at Zingerman’s. It was the 139th note of this sort I’ve sent to the staff since the start of the pandemic. Here’s some background on the notes, excerpted from the pamphlet “Working Through Hard Times”:

Back in mid-March [of 2020], I started sending email updates to the ZCoB staff every evening. My thinking, as the pandemic started to hit, was that having some sense of connection—even if it was only through electronic media—might at least give folks in the organization some sense of stability. At the beginning of the crisis, the situation was changing by the day—often by the hour—so keeping people in the loop on what was happening felt important. Some emails have been long, some shorter. I’ve touched on everything from the fact that we furloughed nearly 300 people (a terrible thing to say), to updates on our truncated sales numbers from carryout and delivery, to how busy we’d been at Mail Order, to notes on what breads were available from the Bakehouse.

Even in “normal” times, it’s hard to know what to do in difficult situations. When I first started writing the updates, it clearly was not a normal time. Like almost everyone I knew, I was struggling to chart a good course. As we tried to find our footing amidst high levels of fear and uncertainty, it seemed important to reach out and connect with the Zingerman’s Community. The absence of information, we know, can create big problems. We worry more. We feed each other’s fears. We imagine all sorts of scary stuff. Hope levels, in the darkness, start to drop. And in the absence of hope, very little good is likely to happen. All of which prompted me to send that first note on March 15 of 2020. I went on to write one every evening for the first 100 days of the pandemic. When we reopened dining rooms and started to huddle again in mid-June, I shifted to writing them weekly.

As I explained in the pamphlet, although I hadn’t sent out the notes consciously thinking of trying to raise hope levels here at Zingerman’s, that’s essentially what happened. I realized it only when people began writing me back to say how hopeful they found the notes every night. All of which reminded me, again, of what I’d already written about in Part 4—having hope is huge. Without it, very little good is likely to happen. A year down the road, it seems, the notes are as helpful as ever. Although I’m still not consciously trying to be particularly hopeful, that remains one of the main messages that comes through.

This past Friday morning, I woke up to, among other things, some lovely responses to the Thursday evening email. They were reminders that hope still helps. Leah Trulik of our Department for People (our HR) sent me a particularly meaningful message:

This was incredibly inspiring, and it brought me to tears. What a year! … this beacon of light in your emails over the last year has been the pulse moving us forward with the belief that things will get better, and now a new day, and hope is here.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the notes are, by any means, the main reason we’re still in business a year down the pandemic road. They are but one tiny element in what makes our ecosystem work the way it does. Great food, great service, effective money management, visioning, positive energy, open book, LEAN, Servant Leadership and more all come into play. I choose positive beliefs, but I’m not completely naïve. Of the 700 folks who worked here a year ago (we’re at 550 today as I write) not everyone reads emails. But at the same time, the notes—and the response I continue to get from them a year later—have served to remind me just how much hope matters.

Although the impact of the email messages has been meaningful, writing them regularly has not been all that much work for me. In fact, increasing hope levels in any form, I learned from studying the subject, isn’t particularly difficult. To do it, you simply act on each of the six elements of the 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.

If you have these six things firmly in mind, you can do them all relatively easily, and effectively, for a staff member in under ten minutes. They work. The “sun” comes out. And you’ll see the “solar power” brighten eyes and increase energy. The problem is that it’s equally easy to eradicate hope. A scowl, a sneer, a snippet of cynicism, a negative remark, failure to remember someone’s name, not making eye contact, blaming… any of these all-too-easy actions (I’ve done them all) can drastically diminish hope. If hope is the sun, in a matter of minutes we can unwittingly darken someone’s sky.

While the pandemic will eventually pass, the need to lead in hopeful ways will not. In nature, plants won’t grow without sun; and in business, human beings won’t blossom without hope. Which is why having hope, I’m pretty sure, will show up in the next list of Natural Laws we put together here. In studying hope, it became almost immediately obvious that although it’s rarely talked about, hope is a HUGE contributor to health, both personal and collective. And its absence has a whole host of negative consequences.

To be clear, meaningful hope is not just about presenting some pollyannaish picture of a positive future. It needs to be grounded with one foot firmly planted in present day realities, and at the same time, another anchored in a more positive future. Ed Jones, senior VP for the Institute for Health and Productivity Management in Arizona, writes in “The Importance of Hope: Leadership in History and Psychotherapy”:

Hope is not optimism. It is not a positive outlook or attitude. It is not a passing thought or feeling… The more clinical sense of hope being described here relates to the issue of agency. Hope is being used here to capture the will and determination to move ahead. Goals are distinct from the energy one has for pursuing them. Hope fuels the engine.

This is the beauty of great leaders and great therapists… You want them to fully recognize the depths of the problem and not be deterred. You want them to take meaningful steps forward without thoughts of any simple solution. You want them to help you believe in a better future and in your ability to make it happen. You want hope.

While there’s a great deal of research on hope to be referenced—Rick Snyder and Shane Lopez at University of Kansas both wrote a lot about it—the subject is rarely raised in leadership training programs. We would all, I believe, benefit from changing that. If hope is the sun in the organizational ecosystem, then clearly our job is to be effective bearers of light; to, as per the Age of Aquarius, “let the sun shine in!”

When we actively create hopeful workplaces, we help make hopeful communities. And, in the process, everyone around us will be better off for it. Our problems won’t just disappear when hope increases, but we will at least have a shot at dealing with them. bell hooks writes that, “Hope is essential to any political struggle for radical change when the overall social climate promotes disillusionment and despair.” The same is true in the workplace. Hope is essential if we want to get to greatness. Healthy organizations, I’ve come to see, are always high in hope. Same goes for schools, communities, or sports teams. Regardless of the weather outside, the sun in their organizational ecosystems is almost always shining. Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, says, “I think hope is our superpower. Hope is the thing that gets you to stand up, when others say, ‘Sit down.’ It’s the thing that gets you to speak, when others say, ‘Be quiet.’” And as psychologist and Holocaust survivor, Dr. Edith Eva Eger, who is now 93 years old, says,

Choosing hope affects what gets my attention every day. I can think young. I can choose what I do to fill my day with passion—to dance and do the high kick as long as I’m able; to reread books that are meaningful to me, and go to movies and the opera and theater; to savor good food and high fashion; to spend time with people who are kind and have integrity; to remember that loss and trauma don’t mean you have to stop living fully.

Manchán Magan writes in Thirty-Two Words for Field about how, in ancient Irish culture, when the harvest was finished in the fall, “communities would then hunker down through the dark season with whatever meagre light they had… The idea was to wait out the winter in the hope that the light would return at Imbol, which was the next fire festival, held on February 1.” What Manchán describes seems to be much like what we’ve experienced over the course of this past year. The “light” might be coming back a bit later here in Michigan than the February 1 date Manchán shares, but it sure seems like after trying to hold course through a very long dark season, the “sun” is starting to slowly peak through the clouds.

A year after the pandemic set in and I sent out that first evening email to everyone at Zingerman’s, it does feel like hope levels in the country are steadily increasing. For me, the feeling started a few weeks ago when the weather suddenly got warmer and the sun showed up after a slew of gray days—60°F feels wonderful after a cold winter. Then the State of Michigan cleared the way for folks over 50 with extenuating medical circumstances to get vaccinated. A week ago, last Monday, I got my first shot. I teared up while I was in the waiting room. Two days later, after a year of advocacy by the Independent Restaurant Coalition, the House passed the Restaurant Revitalization Act as part of the President’s stimulus package. I cried again. The bill also included some long overdue funding to bring financial help for Black farmers and for millions of people in need around the country. At the same time, Tammie started planting the new season’s seeds at Tamchop Farm. So, as Grace Lee Boggs once said, “I see hope beginning to trump despair.”

The tipping point, when the hopeful sun seemed to be firmly ensconced in my mental sky, came in the form of another email sent to me. A friend in San Francisco, Bob Rosner, had read “Working Through Hard Times,” and wrote me a lovely note about it: “I particularly appreciated the pamphlet,” Bob said. “I read your weekly enews and you sent me several of your staff notes, so while I had seen most of this before, there was something wonderful about seeing it all at once again.” He closed with a poetic and powerful confirmation of the increased hope level I’d been feeling:

What is interesting is how much the world has changed in the two months since you published the pamphlet.

We made it.

We can see through to the other side.

Thank you for your friendship and your writings.

I wrote him back to thank him for his kindness and care, but it’s only now that I’m seeing the hopeful symmetry of his last few sentences. I realize, in the spirit of regenerative ecosystems, Bob’s note raised my hope level. In rereading his email, I can see that he touched all six points of the hope star: he shared a vision of a better tomorrow, he wrote about ways to get there (in this case by working to make real the dignity, hope, visioning, etc. that are in the pamphlet), he reminded me that I matter and that my work matters, he noticed the nuances in the pamphlet and by reaching out he reminded me that I was part of something greater than myself. By writing about it here I can turn the message right around—thank you, Bob, for your friendship and for writing. Thank you, Leah, for the same. Thank you all for being such a great community to be part of. Higher levels of meaningful hope help everyone.

March 15 marked the 39th anniversary of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. It began all those years ago, in 1982, on a dreary cold mid-March Monday. We were working in our little building on the corner of Detroit and Kingsley. Thirteen-hundred square feet, me and Paul, a couple of employees, 25 sandwiches, no computers, no cell phones, interest rates at 18 percent, and unemployment at record levels. Over those 39 years we have worked through many hard times, and I’m confidently hopeful that we will now get through this one. Whatever we have accomplished over all those years is, of course, completely a collective effort. I feel incredibly honored and humbled to be one small piece of the greater ecosystem. Enormous appreciation to Paul and all the partners, the many thousands of folks who have worked—and still work—here, probably millions of customers, suppliers, supporters, and everyone everywhere who has helped to make us what we are. I have said many times over the last year that I feel fortunate to be part of such a positive organization and in such a special community. Thank you from every part of my heart! Knowing that we are in this together, raises my hope.

All that said, even with this strong sense of growing hope I’ve described here, the reality is that even if we hit 100 percent vaccinations, all of the issues that existed before the pandemic will still be problems when it finally winds down. James Baldwin wrote that, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Looking to the future, when the pandemic has receded is, my hope is that we can make regimens of generating healthy grounded hope into the norm in more organizations than not. That in doing so we will improve emotional and physical health, enjoy our work more, and do better work while we’re at it. That we can right the wrongs of centuries of racism. That we can work to help rebalance long-standing social inequities, reduce the impact of rage and divisiveness, work to make the majority of workplaces around the world into the kind of positive caring ecosystems that can help communities come together to create an ever more positive future. That in the process we can make care and collaboration, the spirit of generosity, and kind-zen into headline news, while the negative notes—there are always some—are put in perspective; there are real issues to be addressed, but always from a hopeful, loving, dignity-based place. And that the importance of helping build hope will be understood—and practiced—by leaders all over the land.

As I’ve been signing the new pamphlet for folks who ask, “Here’s to good things to come!”

You can read more about hope in Part 4, in Secrets #44 and #45.

*** 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!