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Leading Every Day with Dignity

What if we judged our collective success by dignity instead of dollars?

Blog · Ari Weinzweig


There have been a lot of mentions in the news of late about badly behaved anarchists, sinisterly dressed in black, throwing rocks and causing riots. I usually just ignore stuff like this in the news—it’s just old biases continuing to be bandied about as they have since Emma Goldman started public speaking. The other day though, while I was out running, it dawned on me: maybe they’re talking about me? I definitely don’t throw rocks, but I do wear black every day and I have written a wealth of material about the modern day application of anarchism. It did give me pause. Although the press perceives anarchism negatively, maybe it has creative answers to offer. After all, the only disturbances I’m interested in inciting would be intellectual and emotional ones—as Peruvian anarchist Miguel Gonzalez Pradaonce wrote, “A book can demolish fortresses the cannon cannot.” The writer, he said, “uses mind power.” All of which got me to wondering: What if we all just committed to treating each other, every day, and in every way, with dignity?

At first the question seemed overly simple. Maybe naïve, or even silly. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. What if every interaction—even between people who don’t agree with each other, don’t know each other, or don’t like each other—was based on dignity? Dignity in our dealings with our family, with our staff, with animals. Dignity in the way we deal with the planet. And maybe most importantly, with ourselves? What if every system we set up in our organizations and in our communities had dignity as a prerequisite?

Dr. Donna Hickshas spent most of her adult career working dignity as a basis to get through very serious, long-standing conflicts in spots like Northern Ireland and the Middle East. I like her definition: “Dignity is our inherent value and worth as human beings; everyone is born with it.” What Hicks is saying, I realize now, has long been part of what we do here at Zingerman’s. I see now that it’s embedded in many of our approaches—Servant Leadership, Open Book Management, Bottom-Line Change®, our Training Compact, etc. All are based, I see in hindsight, on treating people with dignity. Dignity is referenced in our 2032 vision, and in our new Statement of Beliefs. That’s all a good start. But I’ve realized of late, it’s not enough. We have more work to do.

Although the thought of basing everything we do on dignity was new for me, it is certainly not a new idea. Down in the southwestern corner of Mexico, the Zapatista revolution has, at its core, the commitment to make sure that everyone in their community is treated with dignity. Zapatista leader Subcommandante Marcos asks: “What pieces can we put in place in order . . . to impose peace with justice and dignity?” The question is equally applicable to our everyday lives. We know that when dignity goes missing, bad things will always follow. As therapist Connie North writes, “If we repeatedly feel mistreated, neglected, and devalued, we create defenses that often take the form of hardness, anger, and resentment.” Where dignity is present, collaboration increases, self-images improve, and business gets better.

Whether it’s about marriages or running multinational companies, dignity matters. If we make it our norm—every day, in every direction—good things will come. I’m thinking about the way I treat everyone I come in contact with. At work, at home, at the gas station. It’s in how I handle customer complaints or talk to frustrated staff members. How I greet and treat a new dishwasher or how I react when I’m in deep disagreement with someone. It’s how I talk to Tammie when we come home after we’ve each had a long day. It’s how well I listen when someone is in pain. It’s learning—and using—people’s names. It’s asking good questions and waiting to really hear the answers. Ashanti Alston, former Black Panther turned anarchist while serving a long prison sentence, has inspired me many times with his words. He says: “Human dignity is key. Either you respect people’s capacities to think for themselves, to govern themselves, to creatively devise their own best ways to make decisions, to be accountable, to relate, problem-solve, break-down isolation and commune in a thousand different ways … OR: you dis-respect them. You dis-respect ALL of us.”

Please know, this question about dignity isn’t about blame. Instead, I believe, it’s about beginnings. We all have the power to get this going. It’s much as anarchist Howard Ehrlich asked and answered 20 years ago, “Who will make the anarchist revolution? Everyone. Every day in their daily lives.” What if we began doing it with dignity? Candi Castleberry Singleton is a big proponent of exactly that. She starts all her public talks by asking who in the audience would like to be treated with dignity. Of course, everyone raises their hand. But as Singleton says, it’s up to us to make the choice to do it. And we all, starting with me, have fallen short. Need some help to get going? Singleton has a list of 7 pillars of dignity and 30 tips on how to do it well. Start today. Weird viruses and challenging elections are no excuse to wait.

Treating everyone with dignity is a behavior. And like all our behaviors, our actions are based on what we believe (Secret #40). In order to treat anyone in an undignified way, we have to believe, at some level, that we’re better than they are. Or, stated negatively, that they are less than we are. It happens, unfortunately, everywhere—at work and in the world at large. We stereotype groups with racism, anti-Semitism, or a thousand other negative ways. We portray enemies in subhuman terms. You can see it throughout American history with race. At a smaller, but still significant scale, we criticize co-workers or customers. We demean our competition or certain categories of jobs. We make fun of our mothers or cut down our cousins. As I know from experience, sarcasm and cynicism are easy, socially acceptable ways to do it. We do it daily by walking right past people and not looking them in the eye and greeting them.

I was talking about all this with my friend, the very fine writer and all around good guy, John U. Bacon. I was wondering aloud what the opposite of dignity was. John suggested that it would be cruelty. When we don’t treat people with dignity, we are implicitly imposing small pieces of cruelty on them. Those small cruel actions add up. See this story from my friend, artist and designer, Takara Gudell. It’s hard to maintain a sense of one’s own worth when the messages from the media, friends, family or coworkers tell you that you’re subpar. Takara has turned her hurt into amazing art and making a better world. Part of our work as leaders, I can see now, is to make sure that those quiet cruelties don’t undercut all the other good things we’re trying to do with our organizations. We need to be careful. It can happen quietly and quickly and easily go unnoticed in the moment. But a lifetime of living with the small, constant cruelties is very likely to leave people doubting their own self-worth, angry at others, and understandably ready to rage at work and at the world.

Cruelties—the lack of dignity—can be built into structures and processes. It can happen at work and in communities. To see one component of systemic cruelty in action, you might consider reading The Master Plan by Chris Wilson. The man is an inspiration and the book is intense. Coming out of most every socio-economic disadvantage one could have in the U.S., convicted of killing a man when he was only 17, Chris was sentenced to life in prison. The Master Plan shares stories of how he successfully earned release from prison and went on to start businesses in Baltimore, become an artist, work to help other returning citizens reacclimate, and assist others in need. Dignity—both having it taken away and then restoring it—is a theme that runs throughout the book.

Chris Wilson is clearly a success story—he made it out through self-discipline and determination to make his vision (aka, his “master plan”) of becoming a positive force in society come to fruition. While behind bars he got his GED and a college degree, learned Italian and Spanish and some Mandarin, read hundreds of books, started a photography business, and mentored other prisoners—all while imprisoned himself. But the other parts of the book are just as important. As is so often the case in life, you’ll see how the inspirational is intertwined with the insidious.  You’ll read about how incredibly difficult it was for Wilson, a man who’d busted his butt to do all the right things once he was behind bars, to move forward. He details how, when he finally got out, it was exceptionally difficult to do things that I would take for granted—to get an apartment, or to be able to vote. He was billed for mandatory drug testing by the state even though he’d been sober for 15 years, and banned from talking to any of his close friends who were still in prison. Or how when he was walking home from his college classes one evening, at the age of 33, he was shoved violently up against the wall by four plain-clothes police who insisted his backpack had to have drugs in it. I know about stories like these, and I know people who tell them. But I’ve never lived through them. And life quickly and definitively takes different trajectories when people have a persistent stream of indignities pushed into their path. That can continue even when you’re on the right path.  A nationally-recognized success story, Chris Wilson was invited by President Obama to speak at the White House.  The Secret Service agents at the gate refused him entry because of his record and kept him waiting for his own event for 2 ½ hours.

My friend Melvin Parson, whose hand you can see holding mine in the photo above, started We the People in Ypsilanti in great part to help remedy some of this situation by providing jobs for returning citizens like Chris Wilson, as well as to help bring farming back into the African American community after bias, bureaucracy, emotional and physical violence have pushed the vast majority of Black farmers of the land in the last 150 years. His work is an inspiration to me and many others. Small bits of dignity—like those Melvin has brought to so many in the last six years—can make a shockingly big difference. Bill Strickland tells the story of a young woman who’d grown up in poverty in Pittsburgh’s inner city who was graduating from his school in Pittsburgh. She thanked him for saving her life. He asked her to say more. She reminded him of the class trip they’d taken to Canada. While they were there, a woman spoke to her and respectfully referred to her as, “Ma’am.” That simple act, she said, restored her sense of dignity. We all have that same power—what if we start each small interaction with the same dignity we’d bring if we were meeting the Dalai Lama?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you want to find the weak links in a democracy, look for where people are suffering. You will most likely see a variety of violations. If you want peace, be sure everyone’s dignity is intact.” It’s the same, I would suggest in business. Unhealthy organizations are quietly, often unknowingly, undercut by cruelty. By contrast, the more we infuse dignity into our day to day work, the better we will do. Where dignity is lacking, failure is almost always around the corner. Where dignity leads, good performance is likely to follow.

If art is how we think, Charles White thought a lot about dignity. White was born in 1918, the last year of WWI, and just before the Spanish flu pandemic. He was a year old when the Red Summer happened in his hometown (and mine) of Chicago. White grew up loving art and the library, but he became frustrated as a young man that there was no African American history being taught in his school. White went on to turn that frustration into a positive message through his painting and lithography—he became one of the most amazing artists in American history. Like Chris Wilson, his work is an inspiration. Dignity came through in everything he did. “I’ve tried to deal with beauty,” White wrote. “The beauty in man. Essentially, I feel that man is basically good. I have to start from this premise in all my work.” His book, Images of Dignity; the Drawings of Charles White, is filled with his remarkable work.

I know that making dignity our daily norm will not happen overnight. The good news is that we don’t need to wait for anyone else—we can just begin. Today. Right now. As Rimbaud once wrote, “Only with a burning patience can we conquer the splendid City which will give light, justice and dignity to all mankind.”

2020 has very obviously been a difficult year. We can choose to descend into the darkness, commit to cruelty, and wait for others to fix things. Or we can commit ourselves to digging, daily, into a life that’s based on dignity. To close, I’ll come back to the Zapatista revolution, in which dignity is the core principle. Subcommandante Marcos said, “When the storm calms, when rain and fire again leave the country in peace, the world will no longer be the world, but something better . . . In our dreams we have seen another world, an honest world, a world decidedly fairer than the one in which we now live . . . in this world there was no need for armies; peace, justice and liberty were so common that no one talked about them as far-off concepts, but as things such as bread, birds, air, water, like book and voice.” And maybe dignity will be the order of the day.

For more on beliefs, how we got them, and how we can change them, see The Power of Beliefs in Business.

P.S. If you’re not sure about really greeting and dealing with each person with dignity, try keeping track—score each interaction you have for a few days on a scale of 0 (demeaning and cruel) to 10 (highly dignified) and see how it goes. Let me know what you learn.

P.P.S. Want more on the meaning of dignity and its relation to community health

*** 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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