¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In the original draft of this book, which began with this first keyword chapter called “You,” I focused on persuading you, the reader, that you are also a leader, regardless of where your position in the org chart may lie. My hope was to get everyone on campus to embrace a leadership mindset, to be willing to take a look around them and figure out where and how they could organize for meaningful change. I still stand by that idea, even if it does ring a little of the motivational speaker to me now. (“You’re a leader… and you’re a leader… Leadership for everybody!”)
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 I wound up moving away from an overall focus on “you” for a couple of reasons, which I’ll take up in the chapters ahead. But there is one important component of “you” that I continue to believe must remain here — an exploration of who you should be as a leader, and what you need to pay attention to in order to make it so.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 3 Ari Weinzweig is co-founder and CEO of Zingerman’s. What began in 1982 as a small neighborhood deli in Ann Arbor has expanded over 40 years into what is now referred to as the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, or ZCoB, with over 500 employees and $50 million in annual sales. The ZCoB remains rooted in Ann Arbor, however, despite its world-spanning influence. The businesses grew in no small part due to Weinzweig and his partners’ unusual approach to managing them, which he describes as “anarcho-capitalism.” But the Zingerman’s influence has grown because of the ways they have documented and shared that approach. They built on the processes they developed for training new staff members, for instance, and created a suite of leadership seminars offered by ZingTrain. They also developed and published a series of leadership pamphlets and textbooks through Zingerman’s Press.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 I attended a ZingTrain master class in March 2022 and came away brimming with inspiration, thinking about ways that I could guide my team through visioning exercises that would help us imagine the future we want to build and then chart our path toward it, about ways that I could use the principles of open book management to create a greater sense of participant ownership of my community-oriented projects, and more. Perhaps the most takeaway from our readings and discussions for me, however, was a small passage in Weinzweig’s essay, “Twelve Tenets of Anarcho-Capitalism”: “the best leaders are almost always the people who work hard on themselves. They treat themselves as they’d like to be treated by others, are the most self-reflective, and consistently work for meaningful self-improvement.”1
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 This idea stopped me in my tracks, for a few reasons. First, it suggested that the first object of leadership cannot be others, but rather must be the self. Leaders must hold themselves accountable to the same standards that they hold others. They must be willing to take up the same responsibilities, the same practices, the same structures that they create for their teams. In fact, leaders must understand themselves as part of the team, rather than as guiding it from above. I might reverse a bit of Weinzweig’s description by saying that leaders need to treat others with the same concern and compassion with which they’d like to be treated. But they also need to treat themselves in the same ways they’d treat their teams: with the same encouragement, the same guidance, the same requests, the same accountability.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 4 All of us have seen any number of academic leaders (much less business and political leaders) who are happy to talk publicly about values such as equity, community, compassion, and more but whose behavior behind closed doors does not live up to those values. You may immediately think of the most glaringly obvious cases, leaders whose private failures of ethics lead to public disgrace, sudden resignation, and institutional trauma. But there are less-obvious ways in which we live with the discrepancy between the ways some leaders talk about values and the ways they enact them. They might just be terrible bosses, making impossible demands of the members of their teams, failing to support them in reaching their personal and professional goals, belitting and chastising them, taking credit for their work, and more. These are the kinds of misbehaviors that too often go unremarked; as long as the leader in question is getting things done, their damaging interactions within their teams are often swept aside. The result, of course, is that many leaders do not recognize the gap between their public arguments and their private actions. Worse, any narcissistic tendencies they may have might allow them to believe that, because they are who they are, their actions cannot be wrong.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 1 Breaking through those failures of self-recognition can be painful, but it’s a necessary first step to developing better leadership practices. Because here’s the thing: even if you can’t see the distance between your words and your actions, those around you can. And as James Baldwin quotes from a Black American song, “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”2 Until you’ve fully reckoned, for instance, with the ways that social and institutional hierarchies permit you to excel at others’ expense — or more simply with the ways that your actions and energies affect those around you — you can’t really be up to the task of making a better workplace, much less a better world.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 2 So: be the change. It’s a cliché, for sure, but one with teeth. As Weinzweig notes, we have to be willing to “work for meaningful self-improvement” if we’re going to be capable of making any improvements in the world around us. “Meaningful” is not just a throwaway here; this isn’t just a diet or exercise regime, or something that can be solved with a self-help book. Rather, it requires work — but what kind of work? Not necessarily therapy, though there are worse places to begin. The most important aspect of therapy (says the total non-therapist, so do not take this as anything like professional advice) may be less any form of advice or intervention rendered by your therapist than the ways that the experience asks you to turn the lens on yourself, to really consider your behaviors, your reactions, your habits, your defenses from a new perspective. That perspective can be gained in any number of ways, however, if you’re willing to take it seriously, and to work for it. It can come from deep reading and contemplation. It can come from journaling or other forms of creative production. It can come from any number of spiritual practices, including meditation and prayer. It can come from engaging seriously with the kind of 360-degree review that asks not just your supervisor but also your colleagues and your direct reports for feedback.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Part of what Weinzweig is getting at in his assertion that the best leaders are the ones who consistently work hard on themselves, however, is that becoming a person who can lead well is a process without end, one that cannot ever be completed. There isn’t a certificate offered upon successful conclusion of a program of self-improvement, entitling you to operate as a credentialed Good Leader. Rather, this kind of internal reckoning with your engagements with the world, and with the people around you, will — and should — be part of the rest of your life. Take it seriously.
Questions for reflection and discussion:
- ¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 2
- What practices do you regularly engage in that might lead you to the kinds of “meaningful self-improvement” that Weinzweig argues could make you a better leader? What practices do you resist? Why?
- How would you describe the best boss you’ve ever had? The worst boss? What have you learned to emulate from the best? What have you learned to avoid from the worst?
- What do you still feel like you need to learn that help you create the kind of working environment you’d like to be part of? How might you go about learning it?