All posts tagged: Max DePree

Servant Leadership

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” Max DePree, the long-time CEO of the furniture and design pacesetter Herman Miller, wrote those words in his small but influential book Leadership is an Art, and they’ve stuck with me through the years. In the early 1980s, as I was preparing to take my first leadership post as the executive director of a nonprofit organization, I read Robert K. Greenleaf’s 1977 book Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. A humanities major without any background in management or business, I was looking for guidance on how to lead, motivate, and manage people. Greenleaf’s words resonated with me, even if I didn’t come close to fully understanding their implications. “The servant-leader is servant first,” he wrote. “It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” I went on to study other management and leadership theories, attended a Harvard Business School executive …

Let’s go 1-0 today

Saturday’s rally to celebrate the Washington Nationals World Series Championship was—intended or not—a masters class in leadership and team building. The lessons were outlined by speaker after speaker from the stage, and they began with a facing of reality. Before he passed away in 2017, Max DePree was the retired CEO of the furniture and design pacesetter Herman Miller. Through the years I’ve come to appreciate his definition of leadership, and especially his thoughts on the responsibilities of leaders. DePree said that the first duty of a leader is to define reality. On May 24th, with almost a third of their season over, the Nationals record stood at 19-31. Twelve games under .500. Their chance of winning the World Series on that date was a miniscule 1.5%. From the outside, it appeared that the reality wasn’t good. But there were reasons—primarily but not exclusively a rash of injuries to key players—that led to the bad start, and the reality was that those injured players were beginning to return. It was also clear that some elements …

Leadership

At a recent retreat, our divisional management team focused on the support and growth of leaders among our staff. Leadership comes in many forms.  We all know of the stereotypical alpha male, Type A personalities who have been celebrated as leaders on Wall Street as well as in the movies, the halls of Congress, business, the tech sector, and the military.  These are the types who bark out orders and expect others to follow.  These are the “born leaders.”  Or so they say. But there is another type of leadership that is usually—in my experience—much more effective.  It generally comes from people who learn to be leaders, rather than assume they know it all from birth.  I put more stock in these types of leaders in part because I am reminded of the tale of a group of tourists visiting a rural, picturesque village.  They walked by an old man sitting beside a fence and in a rather patronizing way, one tourist asked, “Were any great men or women born in this village?”  “Nope” the …

It’s Hard to Remember Not to Rely on Your Memory

In a recent email exchange with some colleagues, I made the mistake of relying on my memory for a budget number instead of first checking our documents.  When the mistake was corrected by another on the email trail, I made the excuse that I was working from memory, and added that I should remember not to rely on my memory.  A colleague with a very dry wit responded with the quip, “It’s hard to remember not to rely on your memory.” He had me there. I’ve written in the past that, “Memory is a poet, not a historian.”  When you need things like budget numbers, we call upon the historian part of the brain, to make sure the figures are correct. But in many instances memory—and especially the poetry of memory—is crucial.  Max DePree writes of the times when memory and storytelling come together in powerful ways.  He does so to differentiate between what he calls scientific management and tribal leadership.  “Every family, every college, every corporation, every institution needs tribal storytellers.  The penalty for …

Intimacy

I’ve mentioned before how much I have learned from the book Leadership is an Art by Max DePree.  Events in my life are leading me back to reference this work. I want to share some thoughts from this book, beginning with DePree’s writings on intimacy and work.  The former CEO and Chairman of Herman Miller, Inc. begins his chapter on the subject by saying,  “Intimacy is at the heart of competence.  It has to do with understanding, with believing, and with practice.  It has to do with the relationship to one’s work…intimacy with one’s work leads to solid competence.” Intimacy—in DePree’s view—is the “experience of ownership.” One arrives at intimacy with one’s work out of “difficulty or questions or exasperation, or even survival.” And this intimacy “affects our accountability and results in personal authenticity in the work process. A key component of intimacy is passion.” Working through difficult situations to reach a sense of ownership of one’s work—and life—is something to which we can all relate. “Superficiality in a special way is an enemy of …

Each of Us is Needed

In his wonderful 1987 book Leadership is an Art, retired Herman Miller CEO Max DePree tells a story about diversity.  He notes that one of the key people in the 1920 furniture business founded by his father was the millwright, who oversaw the steam engine that powered the enterprise.  One day the millwright died. DePree’s father went to visit the family, and after some awkward conversation the widow asked if it would be all right if she read aloud some poetry. DePree continues with his story. “Naturally, he agreed.  She went into another room, came back with a bound book, and for many minutes read selected pieces of beautiful poetry.  When she finished, my father commented on how beautiful the poetry was and asked who wrote it.  She replied that her husband, the millwright, was the poet.  It is now sixty years since the millwright died, and my father and many of us at Herman Miller continue to wonder:  Was he a poet who did millwright’s work, or was he a millwright who wrote poetry?” …