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Leadership Development

How to Lead When You’re Not a Leader

In the Servant Leadership workshops we teach, we often lead in to the content we’ve adapted from Robert Greenleaf by asking the group:

“What are the characteristics of a Manager and those of a Leader?”  

Typically, the answers come in a polarized format, as though it’s mutually exclusive:

A manager tells people what to do, a leader inspires people to follow their example.

A manager is an executor, a leader is an originator.

In reality, there isn’t as explicit of a distinction between the two.  Many managers are effective leaders, and many leaders don’t hold any official title that would identify them on an organizational chart.

It’s the latter group that this blog post addresses, those who don’t hold formal leadership titles – I am one of you!  I have worked at Zingerman’s for over 12 and a half years, and at no point have I been in a formal “manager” role, where any staff reported to me.  But it was a major revelation a number of years ago to realize that I am considered a leader in our organization, which is something that I don’t take lightly.

I’ve learned a lot over the years, and what I’ll share with you here are a few tips for how to apply Zingerman’s approach to Servant Leadership at work, regardless of what job title you may hold.

Live Servant Leadership

We have 6 measures of effective Servant Leadership, which Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner Ari Weinzweig wrote about in Specialty Food Magazine:

1. Provide Vision

2. Give Great Service to Staff

3. Manage in an Ethical Manner

4. Learn and Teach

5. Help Staff Succeed

6. Say “Thanks!”

Tips for Applying The 6 Measures of Servant Leadership in YOUR Role

 Provide Vision (or – Have a Vision)

Participate in creating Visions.

ZingTrain Zingermans VisionZingTrain is currently hard at work on our 2025 Vision, describing in rich detail what success will look like for our business in 6 years.  This is at least the third time I’ve been a part of creating a shared vision of success for ZingTrain – while I’m not an owner, I am confident that I have helped shape the success of our business!  Is mine the loudest or strongest voice in the vision? Absolutely not. But I’m also not abdicating any responsibility for the success either – throwing my hands up in the air and saying “Well, it’s not MY business, I don’t know what we should do.”  If I want to be a part of a really great business that values the input of its employees, then it’s incumbent upon me to help shape that future success.

Write visions for changes.

If you’ve been a ZingTrain seminar participant or even been a lurker on our website, it’s HIGHLY likely that you’ve heard about Bottom-Line Change®, the organizational change process that Stas’ Kazmierski introducted to Zingerman’s many years ago.  (If not, learn more here). At the heart of the Bottom-Line Change recipe is sharing a vision of success for when the change has happened.  Regardless of the scale of the change, I find it extremely helpful to either share with others what success looks like to me, or to learn more about other’s visions as well.


2.  Give Great Service to Staff (or – Give Great Service to Your Co-Workers)


Use the 10-4 Rule.

Anyone who has attended a Customer Service training with ZingTrain knows we are HUGE proponents of the 10-4 Rule.  The idea of the 10-4 Rule is that when someone comes within 10 feet of you, you make eye contact with them, and you smile! Then, when they’re within 4 feet of you, you verbally greet them.  You can ask an open-ended question, you can say a cheery “Good morning!” – it all depends on your personal style and who you’re interacting with. The 10-4 Rule is a very straight-forward, behavioral performance expectation for every single employee at Zingerman’s.  We use it with anyone we come into contact with – customers, co-workers, strangers – we believe each interaction is of equal importance. It feels very different to walk into a workplace where folks are actively working to make eye contact and smile at you than it does one where you’re lucky if your colleagues acknowledge your existence at all.  This is a very simple thing to do if you’re not already (and how validating if you are!), and I have the feeling that you’ll see quick results from others when you test it out.

Acknowledge and Apologize when you mess up, and work to make it right (Two of the 5 Steps to Handling Complaints).

Because you will!  And other people will respect you more when you do the uncomfortable, hard thing of saying, “Hey, I made a mistake or I misspoke, and here’s what I’m going to do differently going forward.”  I’m far from a perfect person – these tips I’m sharing with you are what I aim to do, not what I manage to do 100% of the time! I know how meaningful it has been to me, though, when a leader or someone I respect takes ownership of their actions


3.  Manage in an Ethical Manner (or – Act in an Ethical Manner)

Think before you act, or speak.

You may not be aware that eyes are on you, but they are!  An offhand comment or an unchecked eye roll may not seem like a big deal in the moment – but if you want to be viewed as a leader, it’s even more important to live your organizational values and think about the impact of your words and actions.  It’s incredibly humbling to have someone tell you more than a year later that something you said to them has stayed with them and changed their thinking – and actions – for the better.

Check your energy.

We’ve shared a lot of information on personal energy management and I think this work can be especially impactful for those of us that influence others with our actions, whether we intend to or not.  Check yourself when you walk in the door – what are you projecting to others? Is it a giant thundercloud over your head because you just had a rotten drive in?  Or are you a positive presence who will lift others up with your buoyant presence? As the day goes on, check in on your energy and work to keep yourself in a positive energetic space so that you’re having a positive impact on those around you.


4.  Learn & Teach

Share information lavishly.

Choosing to be someone who is willing to share their knowledge and experience will always be more valuable to an organization than an information-hoarder who grudgingly teaches other people what they need to know to be successful. That being said – check yourself before offering unsolicited advice or information.  You can ask if someone wants help, or to talk through a situation, but if you’re interjecting yourself into conversations or areas beyond your purview without explicit welcome, you run the risk of becoming someone that folks avoid rather than seek out.

Learning is a gift to yourself.

One of the many self-realizations I’ve had through the amazing opportunities I’ve had to learn, both at Zingerman’s and from other organizations, is that I’m at my best when I’m actively learning or working to improve.  When I have a learner’s mindset, I find cues and clues everywhere that strengthen my connection to whatever it is that I’m learning. In fact, I find that I’m more engaged in everything I’m doing when I’m seeking to improve myself and my business.  We work hard to never rest on our laurels and to keep getting better in everything we do – why would that be any different on a personal level?


5.  Help Staff Succeed (or – Other’s Success is Your Success)

When one of us wins, we all win!

Zingermans-ZingTrain-pig-party-craker-confettiI want to be known as the kind of person who lifts others up, who appreciates the hard work that my peers do, who notices the little things our team does to create a great customer experience – not the kind who hogs the glory and needs the attention to always be on them. This can be hard when you feel that your contributions are not being recognized as much as others, to actively recognize your colleague’s successes. But I can speak for myself and say that when I can get over myself, it turns out it’s more likely that my contributions will be valued, too.  Not to mention, it’s also really beneficial for your own energy to be genuinely appreciative of others!

6.  Say Thanks!

Even bosses need thanks, too.

It’s always a little odd to me when we teach Servant Leadership and see that leaders are nodding their heads in agreement with the importance of thanking their employees – and how impactful thanks and praise from past leaders was to them.  What I always want to ask is, “When was the last time your staff took the opportunity to really thank you for what you do for them?” I don’t ask, because I don’t want people to feel bad – but remember, managers are people, too! They like being acknowledged and thanked as much as anyone else, and often I think it’s less likely that they’re getting that.

I am incredibly thankful that I took the opportunity to thank my bosses, Maggie and Stas’, on my 10th anniversary at ZingTrain.  It’s meaningful to both parties when that kind of heartfelt, deep appreciation is shared – and I’m particularly glad I thanked Stas’ 3 short months before he passed away.


Again, I want to confess to you that I am not perfect at any of the things I’ve shared with you here.  But I hope you take one or two ideas to heart, and start testing them out! If that works and feels good, then add another idea and see how it goes. And if you feel so inclined, keep us in the loop on how it’s going!

And I promise, I’ll do my best to live up to what I’ve written ….