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 old man replied.  “Only babies.”

This type of leadership is resolute, but not rude.  Humble, but not timid.  Proud, but not arrogant.  Humorous, but without folly.  Optimistic, but not reckless.

That last trait is one I personally cherish in leaders.  The good ones can look at any situation and, without being pollyannaish, find the path forward … the good in the person … the way to get everyone to make the right choice. All leaders face difficult obstacles, but the good ones handle them with grace and equanimity, showing all of us how leaders direct change.

Plus, true leaders don’t whine!  George Bernard Shaw said, “The true joy in life is to be a force of fortune instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”  True leaders are a force of fortune.

Jim Collins, in his classic Good to Great:  Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t, took on this question of leadership in describing the Level 5 Executive—his term for those with the highest level of executive capabilities.  Collins notes that top leaders build greatness through a “paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.”  They are ambitious, but their ambition is “first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.” In the social sector, Collins notes that power is often much more diffuse than in business, but the power to get things done exists nonetheless, if you know where to find it.  “There is the power of inclusion, and the power of language, and the power of shared interests, and the power of coalition.”

Some of the most powerful leaders I’ve known have unassuming exteriors and yet their interior lives and values are exemplary.  Let me anthropomorphize a building that I saw in Rome while on sabbatical in 2016 as an example:  San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Saint Charles at the Four Fountains).  This church’s design – a masterpiece of architect Francesco Borramini – is both “extraordinary and complex.”  The exterior/interior relationship is best described by architect Daniel Solomon in his Bedside Essays for Lovers (of Cities):

“Borromini was eclipsed for much of his career by the flashier and more charismatic Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and his oeuvre are mostly second-tier commissions – smallish buildings on undistinguished city sites.  His greatness is built on surmounting the contradictory demands of these commissions – simultaneous city fabric and monument.  Second-tier commissions produced some of the most complex and subtle works of the Western canon…

Never have the ordinary and the extraordinary been reconciled with more sublime elegance than at San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane.  Its interior is nothing less than a three-dimensional cosmological map depicting in its intricate geometries and its filtration of light the relationship of heaven and earth.  But the sanctuary of San Carlo sits on an unremarkable street corner on the consistent street frontage of via Quirinale, leading to the magnificence of Palazzo Quirinale and Piazza Quirinale a couple of blocks up the street.  Mediating between the glories of the interior and the important but subservient role of the exterior is a subtly undulating wall, true to the demands of both inside and out.  In this most complex of mediations, Borromini leaves the enduring lesson of how to be both a humble city builder and an architect of thundering power.”

Dome of San Carlo

Dome of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

I have worked with individuals who eschew the flashy exterior, content to be seen as partners with others in a larger, complex whole.  But their work, values, and legacy show amazing interior depth.  Max DePree is the retired CEO of the furniture and design pacesetter Herman Miller, and through the years I’ve come to appreciate his definition of leadership.  DePree says:

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

In almost every station of life, there exists a potential leadership component.  You may be leading an organization, a division, a department, an office, a project team, an intern, a business, a family, or a group of friends.  Whatever your role, leaders need to be good at recognizing and defining reality.  Saying thank you is acknowledgement that you don’t do these jobs alone.  A servant leadership suggests you are there to help others grow and realize their full potential.

Jim Collins says that great lives result from having meaningful work.  Real leaders can help us get there.

Have a good week.

More to come…


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


Storytelling (photo credit: visme.co)

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 failing to listen” to these storytellers, says DePree, “is to lose one’s history, one’s historical context, one’s binding values.”

I have heard several excellent examples of storytelling in recent weeks that helped me understand the historical context that was at the heart of the message.  At last week’s Main Street Now conference, Bill Peduto—the mayor of Pittsburgh—spoke in easily understood language that told you about the city he leads and loves.  When he says, “The city of Pittsburgh produced more steel in World War II than Japan and Germany combined,” one learns so much more than just the annual steel production numbers in western Pennsylvania.  You learn about the character of the people.  Stuart Graff, the CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, was engaged in tribal storytelling at the celebration of the Painted Desert National Treasure two weeks ago when he said that Wright stressed that one should “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature.  It will never fail you.”   Stuart—speaking primarily to a group of conservationists and preservationists—was  making the counter-intuitive case for taking a different perspective when looking at modernist structures in natural settings, such as national parks.  My National Trust colleague Tom Mayes, in his Why Do Old Places Matter? series, participates in a type of tribal storytelling to remind us of the values around the work we do.  It’s not just about the buildings.

There are times when we will all be called upon to reflect on people, work, and values we hold dear.  Remembering (if we can) to rely on the poetry of our memory helps us turn those reflections into storytelling, which then helps us connect to our history, our historical context, our binding values.

Have a great week.

More to come…



Leadership is an Art

Leadership is an Art by Max DePree

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 intimacy.  When one thinks carefully about why certain people who are competent, well educated, energetic, and well supported with good tools fail, it is often the red thread of superficiality that does them in.  They never get seriously and accountably involved in their own work.”

DePree also focuses on ambiguity and change.  He notes that “We find intimacy through a search for comfort with ambiguity.  We do not grow by knowing all of the answers, but rather by living with the questions.”  I love that idea of being comfortable with ambiguity and growing through our living with the questions.  This is important because “Three of the key elements in the art of working together are how to deal with change, how to deal with conflict, and how to reach our potential.”

Let’s think about how we can ask the questions and search for the answers together.  Have a good week.

More to come…


Each of Us is Needed

Leadership is an Art

Leadership is an Art by Max DePree

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?”

DePree takes the lesson of this story as the need to endorse a concept of persons.

“This begins with an understanding of the diversity of people’s gifts and talents and skills….Understanding and accepting diversity enables us to see that each of us is needed.  It also enables us to begin to think about being abandoned to the strengths of others, of admitting that we cannot know or do everything.”

Diversity can be a catchphrase and frequently – in all its richness – goes unrecognized.  We are all better when – as we recognize what individuals bring to our lives – we “polish, liberate, and enable” those gifts.

Have a good week.

More to come…