Leadership Between the Lines

How choking on spinach and the struggle to lead successful organizational change are similar

A couple of weeks ago, at the Inc 500 Conference in DC, I was having dinner with my good friend and colleague Ari Weinzweig (co-founding partner and CEO of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses and early adopter of Bootist Leadership) when I felt like I was going to choke. It wasn’t the company (—or the company :)—) but rather a delicious fresh piece of organic spinach that had lodged itself halfway down my throat and halfway in my mouth. You may know the feeling – halfway down, half way up – and you have to make a choice, take another bite, swallow it and hope for the best OR pull it back up and spit it out. I felt like I was going to gag, but instead of choking it up all over my dining partner, I opted to gulp it down and hope for the best. It went down, but with tears in my eyes, and recovering from my “near death” experience, we started to laugh at how swallowing fresh organic spinach and almost choking is a lot like organizational change…well any change for that matter.

First off, it’s uncomfortable. At first you feel like you’re gonna gag, your eyes may tear up, it may be hard to communicate to your peers, and your gag reflex makes you want to choke it up, spit it out, quit. Problem with that is that if you do any of these, you gave up too fast, the spinach doesn’t get digested, the organizational change doesn’t happen, and you’re back to square one – possibly having to gobble it down again (and maybe with a better strategy, but who’s to say?) Second off, it’s green – organizational change is green for a couple of reasons – 3 that I think of now are – it’s new for everyone, it’s got to have time to grow like grass, and it’s not always a pretty color. Third, if you throw it back up, you’ve made a big mess, and it’s probably better not to have started eating it in the first place, plus your dinner companion and employees may be less likely to believe you’ll follow through the next time.

Now on occasion, you really are choking, so it’s time to signal for help, call in the troops, get support, get the hymlic. But more often, you just gotta go with it, take the big gulp, swallow and eat your spinach. It’s how Popeye got strong and it’s how your organization can get strong. Just note to self to make sure you’re thoughtful about it, cut it into the right size pieces, “eat” with the right people, and pay attention as it’s going down.

Speaking of Ari, Zingerman’s, leadership, and organizational change, Zingerman’s ZingTrain has a couple of really great seminars that you ought to check out if you’re serious about creating positive organizational change in your company, becoming a “small giant”, getting better at training, engaging your organization in “open book finance” and many other things. There’s a whole bunch of information on the main ZingTrain site. In fact, they have a really special seminar coming up next week – on the 19th and 20th – called "Small Giants: Creating a Vision of Greatness" that Ari co-leads with Bo Burlingham (author of the Small Giants: Companies That Choose to be Great Instead of Big book and the Editor-at-large of Inc. Magazine.) DTE clients get a special rate on all ZingTrain Seminars, for this one, there’s an extra special arrangement for all clients and subscribers that we worked out after I survived my little spinach incident—for this seminar you get to bring one colleague, companion or co-worker for free when you sign up for the seminar this week. Basically, buy one, get one free.

If you want to come, let me know or email Ari at ari@zingermans.com – code word “SPINACH.” If you have questions on Small Giants, feel free to write to Ari directly or to Bo at boburlingham@aol.com – code word “POPEYE.” To spinach and organizational change….