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Leadership Development

Why We Want to Teach Everyone Here to Lead

Helping build a culture where we’re all leaders

There’s a musician whose work I like who records under the moniker “honey the witch.” In her piece “when the world ends,” she sings the line, “what a strange time it is to be alive.” That’s an understatement if I ever heard one. But if strengths lead to weaknesses—and weaknesses, in turn, can later courteously open doors for strengths—then the challenge of the times would mean that it’s also an amazing era in which to lead. And to alter our beliefs about leadership. As poet Theodore Roethke put it so poignantly: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” Here, I suggest that we start to see leadership differently. Rather than confine it as nearly every company still does to a select few at the “top,” I propose we start to teach (and expect) everyone we employ—regardless of formal role or title—to think like a leader. We may have owners, managers, supervisors, and CEOs to take responsibility for operations, but we can still train and encourage everyone on our team to work like a leader from the time they start. When everyone is thinking like a leader, I strongly believe that a whole world of positive things will come from it. Here’s how I explained it in Secret #22, “We’re All Leaders,” in Part 2 of the Guide to Good Leading:

A “manager” is a job title, a position with specific responsibilities, clear expectations, and some range of control to be used in ways that benefit the organization. If you have an org chart, the manager will, for sure, show up on it somewhere. Becoming a “manager” means that someone else took action to hire you and gave you a set of responsibilities and an area over which you have some authority.

A “leader,” I now believe, is not the same as a manager. Being a great leader requires no title and no particular experience. No one necessarily appoints a leader; leaders don’t necessarily have any particular set of responsibilities and they’re often invisible on an org chart. There’s no age requirement. Education can help but it hardly counts for anything if what you learned in the classroom isn’t applied in a constructive way. Although leadership is most often associated with power and hierarchy, the truth is that it’s not all that connected to either. In fact, I’ve come to believe, the only thing that truly gets you into the ranks of leaders is the decision to lead combined with the ability to actually start leading.

I’m a little embarrassed that it took me so long to come to this (now obvious) conclusion. Here at Zingerman’s we’d long held everyone who works here accountable for the quality of our customer service. Then, in the mid 90s, when we began to use open book management, it became clear that we also needed everyone in our organization to take responsibility for finance. Both approaches had worked well. But it took me another fifteen years before the big light bulb went off: Why not apply this approach and have shared accountability for leadership?

It works! As I wrote in Part 2:

Convincing everyone to think and act like a leader, as if their decisions have a significant impact on the rest of the organization, may not be the easiest work you’ll ever undertake. But it might be some of the most impactful; if we sell the approach well, it will, I guarantee, alter your organization for the better, and probably, forever.

What would leadership like this look like in practice? In my experience, it makes for a group of smart, caring people working collaboratively to creatively come up with innovative solutions and working hard to implement them. It opens up the otherwise untapped potential that’s in 90 percent of the workforce (or community). It changes—for the better—the self-beliefs of the folks who are learning to lead. When people start to think like leaders, they begin to take more charge of their own lives; they more quickly take responsibility for the collective, they network, they learn, they ask for help, and they learn to pursue greatness. Whether it’s for an organization, a community, or a family, I believe everything improves in the process.

Would this kind of approach make for chaos and confrontation? Not if it’s done well. It will work best when the organization is clear on things like vision, mission, and values. Without that framing, it’s hard to go forward together. That’s true for managers and upper-level leaders too. I’m happy that we’ve brought this belief ever more effectively into the forefront of our organizational life. We wrote it into our new Statement of Beliefs:

“We believe everyone is responsible for leadership.”

Good leadership means different things in different settings. Sometimes it means finding new solutions. Often it’s about getting conflicting parties to collaborate. Other times it means following someone else’s lead. The reality of good leadership—i.e., leaders who are developing leaders—is that often our work is to get behind new, up and coming, leaders to help them experience what it’s like to be out front, and to build their belief in themselves. To quote chef Thomas Keller, who’s been very active in the Independent Restaurant Coalition, says, “You can’t spend half a career as someone else’s employee and then suddenly, one day, start thinking like an owner . . . think like an owner and act like an owner from your very first job as a prep cook . . .”

Peter Koestenbaum suggests that this approach is really the only effective way to go forward: “A well led organization,” he says, “consists of nothing but leaders.” In fact, he warns, “There is no room in modern organizations for people not prepared to make the decision to think and act as leaders do.” What happens when people act like leaders? They stop settling for passivity, pretending they have no power, and instead start to step forward and stand up for what’s right. Will that be awkward? Of course. Life is awkward. It’s still awkward for me to step forward to speak up, and I started the company nearly 40 years ago. Leadership means learning to push past that anxiety to advocate for that which you believe from the heart is right. Even when others around you—or “above you”—don’t agree. And then working together to arrive at positive outcomes. As American anarchist Sam Dolgoff once said, “You know, the hardest thing in life is to stand facing the wind.” At times it’s a small group of people—or even a single brave individual—who sees what others don’t, or won’t, see.

Isabel Wilkerson’s powerful book Caste opens with a story that’s apparently fairly well known that I’d never heard of. It’s about a man named August Landmesser, seen in a now-famous photograph that was taken on June 13th, 1936, in Nazi Germany. All the men around Landmesser are holding their arms high, saluting Hitler. He stands with his arms folded. He wasn’t in charge, but he still took a stand. “He is the one man standing against the tide,” Ms. Wilkerson writes. “Looking back from our vantage point, he is the only person in the entire scene who is on the right side of history. Everyone around him is tragically, fatefully, categorically wrong. In that moment, only he could see it. . . . he could not have known the murderous path the hysteria around him would lead to. But he had already seen enough to reject it. . . . He could see what his countrymen chose not to see.” And, she continues: “Unless people are willing to transcend their fears, endure discomfort and derision, suffer the scorn of loved ones and neighbors and co-workers and friends, fall into disfavor of perhaps everyone they know, face exclusion and even banishment, it would be numerically impossible, humanly impossible, for everyone to be that man.” Wilkerson is writing about countries, but I think the same is true in companies. We all, starting with me, mess up regularly. We all need help. When everyone learns to act and think like a leader the organization improves, and we help the individuals who are part of it grow and develop at the same time. We can short circuit group think, and steer clear of ethical shortfalls. We encourage self-development and creative thinking. We help the people we hire learn to think big. And, in the process, our whole community comes out ahead.

I understand that it will not always be easy to do this. Caroline Giuliani wrote in a powerful piece this past week, “Please remember that making us feel powerless is a tactic politicians use to make us think our voices and votes don’t matter. But they do. It’s taken persistence and nerve to find my voice . . ., and I’m using it now.” The same I’ll suggest is true in business. Bosses leave front line folks to flounder. As English anarchist Colin Ward once wrote, “The system makes its morons, then despises them for their ineptitude.” This piece is about inverting that approach, in the belief that our organizations can grow leaders, then recognize and reward them for their good work. And that our businesses will be better for it.

To test this out, I asked a few folks who were working near me why this approach is effective for them. None, by the way, were managers:

Joey Quick told me, “It maximizes productivity in every individual, because you aren’t just looking for direction from someone else. You’re finding your direction for yourself. When you use this approach, you’ll have better employees and better systems.”

Jake Solomon said, “It motivates people to be more independent. It shows them they have more say in their environment. And that changes the way they work.”

Taralyn Brinks added that, “It helps us solve our own problems.”

Chris Novak shared, “It helps us to be ready to make decisions. Sometimes we have to make a snap decision in the moment and when we’re learning how to think like leaders, we’re ready to do that.”

Mara Egelhof, who’s in maybe month three of her first job, and is younger than most of her colleagues—and certainly our customers—said, “It helps me to feel more comfortable dealing with anyone.” Does she like it? “I’ve been telling my friends to come work here. Because we need people. And it’s fun.”

Their comments, and their work, inspire me. Which is one reason why this way of working is both energizing and effective for all involved, instead of exhausting.

This approach, I know, is not the norm. But we don’t have to go with what most people do. We can build people up, and teach them to lead effectively, from the time they first start working. Rebecca Solnit writes: “The future needs us. It needs us in the present to choose through powerful action the best version . . .” Which, to my mind, is what leadership, at every level, is all about.

This belief might be looked at as being more than a bit crazy. But that’s sometimes what leadership is all about, right? If things go well, one day, I hope and believe, this approach can be the norm. As Peter Koestenbaum encourages us: “Do not give up. Persist. Have faith. Today’s heresy is tomorrow’s dogma.”

For much more on this approach, see Part 2: Being a Better Leader, or skip right to Secret #22.

*** 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!