Max De Pree on Leadership

via Bill Peel
March 15th, 2015

Leadership Is an Art
by Max De Pree, 

I read Leadership is an Art when it was first published in 1989. The book has become a classic, selling more than 800,000 copies. De Pree's timeless principles on servant leadership, humanizing work, building relationships and creating a corporate culture built on lasting values are applicable for any organization. A revised edition of the book for a new generation of readers was released in May 2014. 

De Pree served as CEO of Herman Miller and founded the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. His concept of leadership, as described in Leadership is an Art, is driven by his faith. He writes, “First, as a Christian I believe that each person is made in the image of God. For those of us who have received the gift of leadership from the people we lead, this belief has enormous implications.”  

De Pree believes that leaders must move beyond goals and bottom lines, as important as they are, toward embracing a concept of persons that enthusiastically makes room for all the diversity that comes in each one. When leaders recognize this diversity, they have “the chance to provide meaning, fulfillment, and purpose” in every job. 

People don’t reach their potential by fulfilling a contract, according to De Pree. He advocates a covenantal corporate relationship that fosters a workplace culture based on mutual respect, shared purpose, and democratic participation, rather than concentration of power and information in the hands of a few. It’s a recipe for human flourishing, corporate stability and biblical faithfulness for leaders who want to please God. These themes run through this remarkable book.

A few examples of De Pree's principles:

  • The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.
  • Leaders don’t inflict pain; they bear pain.
  • The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers. Are your followers reaching their potential?
  • Everyone has the right and the duty to influence decision making and to understand the results. Participative management guarantees the decisions will not be arbitrary, secret, or closed to questioning.
  • The best people working for organizations are like volunteers. Since they could profitably find good jobs in any number of groups, they choose to work somewhere for reasons less tangible than salary or positions. Volunteers do not need contracts, they need covenants.
  • Structures do not have anything to do with trust. People build trust.
  • In baseball and business, the needs of the team are best met when we meet the needs individual persons.
  • Corporations can and should have a redemptive purpose. We need to weigh the pragmatic in the clarifying light of the moral. We must understand that reaching our potential is more important than reaching our goals.
  • Without forgiveness, there can be no real freedom to act within the group.
Media: Books