DepLead3 03-9-97






Max DePree

Doubleday, 1989, 136 pp. 


 From today’s perspective this is an older management book, the first of three that DePree has written.  Herman Miller has long been known as an outstanding company.  DePree’s father, the founder, built the company on a solid Christian philosophy of valuing people and DePree also genuinely cares about people.   This is not a ‘sound bite’ book.  It’s more like a personal journal, which makes you ponder.  DePree has an unusual ability for a CEO, to see things from the workers’ perspective.  This is not a superficial, technique-oriented philosophy but a person-oriented philosophy that places high value on congruence between work and life.


“The true leader is a listener.  The leader listens to the ideas, needs, aspirations, and wishes of the followers and then—within the context of his or her own well-developed system of beliefs—responds to these in an appropriate fashion.” (Foreword)


Leadership is “liberating people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible.”  “Leadership is more tribal than scientific, more a weaving of relationships than an amassing of information….”  (1,3)


Leaders must understand the diversity of gifts among employees and connect that great variety of gifts to the work and service of the organization.  “The art of leadership lies in polishing and liberating and enabling those gifts.”  (7,8)


“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.”  (9)


“Leaders don’t inflict pain; they bear pain.” (9)


“The measure of the leadership is not the quality of the head, but the tone of the body.  The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers.  Are the followers reaching their potential? Are they learning?  Serving?  Do they achieve the required results?  Do they change with grace?  Manage conflict?”  (10)


Leaders are stewards of relationships: of assets, legacy, momentum, effectiveness, civility, values. (10)


“People are the heart and spirit of all that counts.”  (11)  Leaders can provide “greater meaning, more challenge, and more joy in the lives of those whom leaders enable.” (11)


“Effective leaders encourage contrary opinions, an important source of vitality.” (12)


“What is it, without which this institution would not be what it is?” (14)


“Effectiveness comes about through enabling others to reach their potential—both their personal potential and their corporate or institutional potential.” (16)


“To be a leader means, especially, having the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who permit leaders to lead.” (19)


“Everyone has the right and the duty to influence decision making and to understand the results.  Participative management guarantees that decisions will not be arbitrary, secret, or closed to questioning.  Participative management is not democratic.  Having a say differs from having a vote.” (22)


“Work should be and can be productive and rewarding, meaningful and maturing, enriching and fulfilling, healing and joyful.  Work is one of our greatest privileges.” (28)


“The needs of the team are best met when we meet the needs of individual persons.” (30)


Input—leaders must arrange for involvement on everybody’s part.  Response—leaders must make that involvement genuine.  A great error is to invite people to be involved and to contribute their ideas and then to exclude them from the evaluation, the decision-making process, and the implementation.”  “The process of involvement can cost dearly.  The price is that leaders must be genuinely open to the influence of others.” (32)


Employees are often inhibited from making a commitment to the organization by obstacles constructed by unthinking leaders.  Employees should be able to answer ‘yes’ to the question: “Is this a place where they will let me do my best?”  “One of the key inhibitors to the right to commitment in corporations today occurs when, in the perception of those who follow, the leadership is not rational.  One of the key responsibilities of leadership is the obligation to be rational.” (37)


“Intimacy is at the heart of competence.”  “Everyone knows you can’t run a good restaurant with absentee management.”  (45)  “Intimacy with a job leads one to understand that when training people to do a job, one needs to teach not only the skill of the job but the art of it as well.” (46)


“…no company or institution can amount to anything without the people who make it what it is.  Our companies can never be anything we do not want ourselves to be.” (49)


“I am convinced that the best management process for today’s environment is participative management based on covenantal relationships.” (51)


“We are a research-driven product company.  We are not a market-driven company.  It means that we intend, through the honest examination of our environment and our work and our problems, to meet the unmet needs of our users with problem-solving design and development.”  (73)


“We must understand that access to pertinent information is essential to getting a job done.  The right to know is basic.  Moreover, it is better to err on the side of sharing too much information than risk leaving someone in the dark.  Information is power, but it is pointless power if hoarded.  Power must be shared for an organization or a relationship to work.”  (92)


“We owe each other truth and courtesy, though truth is sometimes a real constraint, and courtesy inconvenient.” (92)


Entropy, from a corporate point of view, means everything tends to deteriorate.  Leaders need to learn is to recognize the signals.  Some of the signals: (98-100)

·        A tendency toward superficiality

·        A dark tension among key people

·        No time for celebration and ritual

·        People stop telling tribal stories or cannot understand them

·        Differences of opinion over words like “responsibility” or “service” or “trust”

·        Problem-makers outnumber problem-solvers

·        Leaders who seek to control rather than liberate

·        Day-to-day operations push aside vision and risk

·        Orientation toward rules rather than values

·        Manuals

·        A growing urge to quantify the past and the future

·        An urge to establish ratios

·        Leaders who rely on structures instead of people



“We must trust one another to be accountable for our own assignments.  When that kind of trust is present, it is a beautifully liberating thing.” (104)


Here are a few questions I have asked my senior manages to consider:

·        Would you share your philosophy of management with your work team?

·        What are a few things you expect most and need most from the CEO?

·        Does this organization need you?

·        Do you need this organization?

·        If you were in my shoes, what one key area or matter would you focus on?

·        What significant areas are there in the company where you feel you can make a contribution but feel you cannot get a hearing?

·        What have you abandoned?

·        What two things should we do to work toward being a great company?

·        What re three signals of impending entropy you see in the company?  What are you doing about it?


Qualities of a future leader: “

·        Has consistent and dependable integrity

·        Cherishes heterogeneity and diversity

·        Searches out competence

·        Is open to contrary opinion

·        Communicates easily at all levels

·        Leads through serving

·        Is vulnerable to the skills and talents of others

·        Is intimate with the organization and its work

·        Is able to see the broad picture

·        Is a spokesperson and diplomat

·        Can be a tribal storyteller

·        Tells why rather than how”  (119-120)


“Joy is an essential ingredient of leadership.  Leaders are obligated to provide it.” (133)



You can see the notes on the other two leadership books by Max DePree:

Leadership Jazz, Max DePree, Doubleday, 1993  


Leading Without Power, Max DePree, Jossey-Bass, 1997