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Natural Law #17: Healthy Organizational Ecosystems Bring the Spirit of Generosity Alive Every Day

Using the metaphorical magic of water to make for healthier workplaces

In the strange corners of my mind, sometimes I start to imagine conversations between people who I know full well never met one another. Silly as they may seem, these imaginary “chats” are flights of historically mixed-up fantasy that help me get my mind around what shifts might have happened along the course of human history had those connections ever taken place. If you flip through the books in the Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading series, now and again you’ll stumble on the visual version of this thinking: In Part 2Secret #29—“Twelve Tenets of Anarcho-Capitalism”—there’s a drawing of the man who first wrote about the idea of Servant Leadership in modern business, Robert Greenleaf, sharing thoughts with Emma Goldman, out front of the Deli on the bench Paul and I were on when we started working on what became our 2009 Vision. In Part 4Secret #43.5—“What I Believe About Anarchism and Business”—we did a drawing of early 20th century German Jewish anarchist Gustav Landauer conversing with Ron Lippitt, the U of M social scientist whose pioneering work is at the foundation of our visioning process.

The other day I had one of these chronologically off-kilter bits of creative historical curiosity. As I usually do, my conscious brain tried to brush the idea away as absurd, but I reminded myself of what Irish writer Manchán Magan says: “The mystical has been central to the lives of people for so long that we ought to at least remain open to the possibility that such thoughts have merit.” In deference to Manchán’s wisdom (he writes wonderfully about Irish history, culture, and language), and to the spirit of generosity about which I’m writing today, I’ve decided to go ahead and share my musings. This time the story centers around an imagined conversation, probably over hot cups of coffee, between two people who happened to have lived about four hundred years apart: Irish writer Gareth Higgins and British philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Since Hobbes lived in the late 17th century and Higgins is still alive and well living in Asheville, North Carolina, I know that they never met. But still, I started to wonder, what if they had? 

Hobbes, to be brief, is a hero to many, but most certainly not to me. Born in England in the spring of 1588, his mother gave birth to him well before her planned due date. His unexpectedly early arrival in the world was prompted, so the story goes, by his mother’s panic triggered by the sudden attack of the Spanish Armada on the English coast. The fear she felt was apparently palpable, and it became a prominent part of Thomas Hobbes’ life story. As Hobbes later wrote, “My mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear.” In 1651, at the age of 63, Hobbes published his most significant work, Leviathan. In it, he shared his belief that, without intervention by strong leaders, humanity would inevitably devolve into what he called, “a war of all against all.” This fear, and Hobbes’ oft-stated idea that we humans have to fight off others to hold onto our fair share, remains at the core of western thinking to this day.

In its entry on Hobbes, says that he:

advocates rule by an absolute sovereign, saying that chaos—and other situations identified with a state of nature (a pre-government state in which individuals’ actions are bound only by those individuals’ desires and restraints)—could be averted only by a strong central government, one with the power of the biblical Leviathan (a sea creature), which would protect people from their own selfishness. He also warned of the war of all against all,” a motto that went on to greater fame and represented Hobbes’ view of humanity without government. … He concludes that humanity’s natural condition is a state of perpetual war, fear, and amorality, and that only government can hold a society together.

For whatever reasons that we can speculate on but will never fully know, much of Hobbes’ thinking developed into a big part of what is, to this day, the dominant set of beliefs in the Western World. The beliefs that human beings will almost always act in their own self-interest, and that, without intervention from “bosses” who, alone, can see the big picture and act in the interest of the “greater good,” life will revert back to the violent and fearful state in which Hobbes’ mother gave birth. Hobbes’ oft-taught approach is based, I’ve come to understand, on negative beliefs about human beings. It’s also the product of a low-hope outlook on life. As I wrote in Secret #45 in Part 4: “Two years ago I would have told you that the opposite of hope is hopelessness. I would have been wrong. According to those who’ve studied this much more than I have, the opposite end of the hope spectrum is actually fear.”

If the gods of history were to invert the thinking of Thomas Hobbes, they might have ended up with Gareth Higgins. He too, was born in a fear-filled place. In his most recent book, How Not to be Afraid, he shares, “Fear was not unreasonable given that I had been born into a society [Northern Ireland] tearing itself apart.” For reasons of psychology and surroundings that I can’t really explain, Gareth Higgins used his fear to develop a philosophy that’s pretty much the polar opposite of Thomas Hobbes’. While the latter’s response to his existential angst evolved into a belief in the need for strong dominant governments and leaders to help us steer clear of chaos, Higgins’ work, by contrast, leads to love, a commitment to care, inclusivity, and peacefulness. Although he doesn’t use the term, Gareth Higgins work is completely aligned, in every way I can see, with work that follows about the spirit of generosity. It’s based on both high hopes for our ability to make a better future together, and on very positive beliefs in human beings.

So, following the flight of mental fancy that got me going on all this, if Thomas Hobbes and Gareth Higgins were to have gotten together, maybe in the second half of Thomas Hobbes’ life, they could have been conversing in one of new kind of coffee houses that started to spring up in England in the middle of 1600s. Coffee was still relatively new to British culture, having arrived for the first time in the late 16th century. Setting the stage for all this, we can think about the two men, sitting side by side at a small round table (less confrontational) with a couple cups of coffee in hand. It would have been, in many ways, a particularly hard time for the two to converse. The 17th century was an era in which England was impinging ever more forcefully on the Irish. In the spirit of the consolidation of power and strict centralized control that Hobbes’ advocated, colonial expansion and cultural eradication of ancient Irish tradition and language were the order of the day. The coffee houses of London might have been a good spot to take a shot at it though—the first café in England was opened, by a Jewish entrepreneur we know as “Jacob” in 1650, and many others followed suit. Unlike the mundanity of 21st century American franchise coffee shops, these cafes were considered cutting edge, hotbeds of conversations of exactly the philosophical type that I imagine these two big-time thinkers might have had – a great place to put into practice one of the many good tools I took from Gareth Higgins’ book. It’s a little mental mantra that is, in essence, a way to help me (or maybe you) manage my beliefs. Regardless of the situation, Higgins recommends: 

When you encounter a story, ask yourself: “Is the story true, and is it helpful?” If the answer is no for either, take responsibility for finding—or making—a truer or more helpful version.

It’s with that mantra in mind that I can very clearly imagine Higgins sitting, quietly and calmly, working hard to stay grounded and open, listening to Thomas Hobbes expound about the social need for strong-willed, autocratic leaders, and build on his fear-based belief that without those leaders, society would descend into the destructive chaos that would lead to the war of all against all Hobbes had repeatedly warned of. And, then I can imagine Gareth Higgins gently looking him in the eye and asking: 

Thomas, I hear you. Still, take a minute to reflect on what you’re saying here. Is this story of the “war of all against all” really true? And Thomas, taking it further, if it is true, is that story you’ve been telling really helpful? I mean, I can relate fully to growing up surrounded by fear. I know it’s probably very uncomfortable having told the same story for so many years, but have you considered, perhaps, these theories of yours could possibly be stemming from the deeply-seated fear that you believe you were born with? Thomas, what if we were to work together here to find a version of this story, one that might be truer and a lot more helpful to all of humanity?

As he writes in his book, Gareth Higgins might go on:

We have been nurtured into a catechism of fearing the world, so that we must always have violence as a recourse, because we never know when they are going to target us … It’s perfectly reasonable, if such premises were true, to live fearful and ready to kill. But the premises are false. The suffering caused by violence, even in the most noble of causes, does not end when the shooting stops. The current global crisis is a crisis of storytelling.

The way I imagine it, Higgins would not have done his work by force of argument or any form of angry attack on Thomas Hobbes or his ideas. As Higgins writes, “Violence does not redeem anything; in fact, it more likely creates further destabilization and long-term need.” Granted, as Higgins says, “It’s hard for people to change their minds,” but still, just maybe, Hobbes would have started to have some second thoughts about his long-standing beliefs, and he might have seen for the first time that the story of his fear-imposed birth had influenced his worldview in ways that were leading to even more war, increased antipathy, and the continuation of conflict. To help Hobbes along, Higgins might have referenced the work—published after Hobbes had passed away—of anarchist Peter Kropotkin on Mutual Aid and anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s studies of synergy. 

Just for good measure, Gareth Higgins could also have brought along the recent 80-plus-page white paper on generosity put out by the Templeton Foundation, which reports that “a host of studies have uncovered evidence that humans are biologically wired for generosity.” It makes a strong case for how generosity helps our health, our organizational effectiveness, etc. In essence, it’s a more science-based statement of my belief that living the spirit of generosity is a Natural Law, like gravity—we can ignore it, but we won’t ultimately do well without it. He might also have brought the Dutch writer Rutger Bregman with him, or at the least a copy of Bregman’s new book Humankind. “This book is about a radical idea …” Bregman writes, “That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” It’s an idea that runs completely counter to what Thomas Hobbes had come to believe. Bregman, it turns out, knows Hobbes’ work quite well, describing him as, “The pessimist who would have us believe in the wickedness of human nature.”

Given that I’m biased towards the worldview of Gareth Higgins, and since renowned writing teacher George Saunders says, “There is no world save the one we make with our minds,” the way I see this fictive historical tale playing out is that Gareth Higgins would have slowly, but surely, helped Thomas Hobbes to arrive successfully at a new set of beliefs—and in the process, changing the story Hobbes had to tell about the world. Instead of war of all against all, Hobbes and Higgins might have come to agreement on the belief in a world in which human beings, left to their own devices, will more often than not, naturally, act in kind and generous ways.

In the context of this historically imagined connection, that kind of worldview leads us to Natural Law #17: 

Healthy organizational ecosystems bring the spirit of generosity alive every day

In the organizational ecosystem model I’ve been working on, the spirit of generosity is water. Quite simply, as every gardener knows, nothing can grow without it. In organizations, little lasting inclusive, and equitable good will evolve without it. As I wrote in Part 4:

The spirit of generosity is the water we need to moisten and enliven things in our cultural soil. Better quality soil is able to hold much more water than parched, essentially dead conventional soil. In nature, good soil contributes to plant growth and the plants return the favor; in the forest, tall trees and their root systems hold moisture in the soil. The corollaries in business? A healthier culture is always a more generous one. And the best people in an organization will effectively preserve and enhance generosity in the workplace.

[Permaculturist] Toby Hemenway posits that we can mindfully build gardens to almost, if not totally, ensure that water will always be present. “With a conscious ecological design,” he writes, “water becomes an integral part of a landscape, designed in, not added on.” It’s the same in business with the spirit of generosity. The framework that follows is a way to take Hemenway’s admonition to heart, ensuring that we infuse generosity into every aspect of our own existences, all our relationships, and our organizational ecosystem.

While financial giving is one piece of this puzzle, I believe it’s only a small one. My focus here is on the spirit of generosity—stuff that mostly happens in our heads and hearts, and that generally costs our organizations next to nothing. If you check the list of 22 things that I wrote about in Secret #46 (it’s on page 406 in Part 4), you’ll see that only a couple have to do with cash outlays (email me if you’d like the list). The vast majority of what you’ll find is free—choosing positive beliefs; sharing social capital (like connecting a new coworker with a physician or banker you know who could help them); being kind, empathic and compassionate; beginning with an abundance mentality. It’s about sharing knowledge and welcoming new ideas with enthusiasm. It’s about giving folks second and third and fourth chances, not holding grudges, and offering a helping hand in any way we can to those who have less than we do. It’s about being willing to have the kind of caring and supportive (even though uncomfortable) conversations that I imagine Gareth Higgins could have had with Thomas Hobbes. 

The spirit of generosity, like water in a garden, softens the culture. As John O’Donohue, a friend and mentor of Gareth Higgins (and one of the most generous and creative spiritual souls whose writing I’ve ever encountered) says, “Water has great generosity and humility. It insists on no particular shape. It takes on the shape of whatever contains it.” Unlike the drive to consolidate power and hierarchy, which tends to close doors, dam up resources, and exclude, water and generosity are inclusive and welcoming. As O’Donohue suggests so beautifully, “Water holds a wonderful imaginative invitation in it.” Water and the spirit of generosity both find their own, more often than not, equitable, levels—as we all say, “a rising tide raises all boats.” In a beautiful illustration of humility (that I wish I’d heard before I wrote the Humility pamphlet), O’Donohue shares, “My father often said, if you want to know how indispensable you are, place your finger in a glass of water, take it out and then notice the difference.”

When we apply the spirit of generosity regularly, judiciously, and mindfully, Natural Law #17 tells us that good things are much more likely to grow in our organizational ecosystems. Situations that might have gone awry had we started with stinginess and a set of negative beliefs turn out, instead, for the better when we work with the spirit of generosity. As John O’Donohue writes, “Within water there is a strange trust. It has a faith in itself. It does not insist on any priority of place. It will flow until it finds its own level.” When the spirit of generosity goes missing, the culture becomes dry, hard, and cracked; conversely, a massive amount of it all at once leads to flooding. Applied mindfully in the right places at the right time, the spirit of generosity works wonders on the vitality of everything and everyone in the ecosystem. As anthropologist Loren Eiseley wrote, “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

Charles Duhigg, on his recent podcast with Brené Brown says, “Throughout history, there’s only been one killer productivity app, and it is, thinking more deeply, training ourselves to think more deeply about the choices that we are making, to make sure that what I am doing right now, aligns with what I think is most important.” It is this kind of thinking that Gareth Higgins would have been quietly and kindly encouraging Thomas Hobbes to engage in. Given that all of us, me included, have been influenced by the negative beliefs about the need to fight for ourselves first and to carefully guard our resources, it’s hugely helpful for me to keep Natural Law #17 close at hand. To keep myself going in the right direction, in Part 4, I made up a little mantra for myself, one that helps me overcome the less generous and less gentle, Thomas-Hobbes-like, voices that still reside in some small part of my brain. The mantra reminds me: “When in doubt, give it out”—it helps me think more deeply, and act more generously, than I might likely otherwise do. 

Gareth Higgins himself acknowledges that the stories of war, struggle, and survival of the strongest and most brutal or cunning at the expense of the weak, are all too common in the world we live in. As Higgins writes, “These stories are widely believed, but they are not true … The world is not getting worse, but the story we’re telling about it could use a little help. There are better stories to tell.” By living Natural Law #17—and really, all of the Natural Laws—we have the chance to change those stories, slowly, but surely, for the better. Generosity leads us toward gentleness, inclusion, equity, and long-term excellence. As Margaret Atwood writes:

When you plunge your hand into [water], all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, whatever any of us have achieved, it has happened in large part through the generosity of others around us. None of us would be here without the other; without Paul, all the other partners in the ZCoB, thousands of staff members, suppliers, and caring customers, I would probably just be one more history major trying to figure out my future. As Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee says, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” Embracing that reality, and generously enhancing our gratitude for what we’ve been given, increases our ability to be more generous, still, going forward. We are certainly all in this together; not at war with each other, but rather, working with the wonder of what we can come together to achieve. As Hanif Abdurraqib suggests, “Isn’t that the entire point of gratitude? To have a relentless understanding of all the ways you could have vanished but haven’t? The possibilities for my existence have been endless, and so the gratitude for my staying must be equally endless.”

By the end of his imaginary conversation and coffee with Gareth Higgins, I’m thinking that Thomas Hobbes might have been ready to abandon his idea of the war of all against all. Had Hobbes faced his fear and come out of it actively and gently, partnering in the pursuit of peace, kindness, and generosity as his new friend Gareth Higgins has done, the world we are living in might well be a calmer and more collaborative place.

The good news is that we can still turn things around. Rebecca Solnit, the history major who I wrote about last week, has written a lot about how humans demonstrate their goodness under duress. “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered,” she says, “People step up to become their brothers’ keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.” We can, if we embrace the spirit of generosity, along with the positive beliefs and hope that naturally accompany it, create the caring, kind, peaceful, and positive organizational ecosystems we want. Regardless of how Thomas Hobbes and Gareth Higgins’ imaginary conversation might have come out, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that how we go forward is really up to us. “The future,” she says, “is the unwritten pages of the history book, the pages we are writing with our actions in the present.”

With the anarchist belief that the means we use need to be congruent with the ends we want to achieve, Jenny Tubbs from Zingerman’s Press and I were thinking if you want to order the spirit of generosity pamphlet online at we’ll send you a second one at no charge to give away to someone you love. Spread the good word!

If you want to lead with generosity in a down-to-earth and practical way, check out “Managing by Pouring Water,” in Part 2!

*** 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!