The Legacy of Max De Pree
The Legacy of Max De Pree

The Legacy of Max De Pree

Max De Pree served for over 40 years with the Herman Miller Corporation. He held a variety of positions, leaving his mark most profoundly as CEO and chairman. During his tenure of leadership, Herman Miller was one of the most respected companies in the United States, continually studied for its people-centred management, its successful innovation, and its strong return to its shareholders.

In recognition of his outstanding leadership, Max De Pree received a wall full of awards. He was elected to Fortune's Business Hall of Fame and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Business Enterprise Trust. Almost every major study of leadership written in the 1990s contained some reference to Max De Pree and the legacy he left at Herman Miller and far beyond.

The legacy beyond Herman Miller took three distinct forms. First, he gave himself to service on the boards of non-profit institutions to which he was committed. He invested his wisdom and his resources, providing consultation, coaching, and accountability.

Second, the legacy of Max De Pree has been shared through his writing. His three leadership books—Leadership Is an Art, Leadership Jazz, and Leading without Power—continue to be bestsellers among the literature of management and leadership. With its gentle story-telling style, Leadership Is an Art has become a must-read and re-read book in many languages for leaders all around the world. Max De Pree's little book about his granddaughter, Letters to Zoe, did not see wide circulation, but has been a poignantly powerful book for those privileged to read it. He has also published a new book, Called to Serve, on the development of boards in non-profit organizations.

Third, Max De Pree's legacy is found in people. Hundreds, probably thousands, of Herman Miller employees would testify to the impact his leadership had on them, their work, and their families. But there have been a handful of men and women who have benefited particularly from the gracious wisdom of this leader. Over the years, Max De Pree has served as a mentor and friend to a group of younger leaders who looked to him as a model, including myself. His mentorship has been a wonderful gift to me.

For over 20 years, Max De Pree has been my mentor, my teacher, my coach, and my friend. His steady wisdom followed me through the turmoil of various middle management positions, the successes and struggles of 12 years as Regent College's president, and now into a new role where I am charged by a board to promote and continue his legacy.

In my new role with the De Pree Leadership Center, I am looking at Max De Pree through a new lens. For years he was the model for leadership for me. His philosophy of management and his theology of leadership formed the framework for my forays into leadership. If I was trying to do anything at Regent College, it was to apply the leadership model of Max De Pree to a graduate school of theology.

All in all, I think it worked. But now everything changes. As a person engaged in organizational leadership, I quickly came to learn that leadership cannot be taught. It must be lived. It can be learned, but it cannot be explained in a neat package or formula.

The best article title on leadership I have seen was called "Leadership as Muddling Through." That says it all. Leadership is a messy mixture of people, passions, vision, and constraints pushing and pulling in multiple directions. There is no one way to do it. Not even a right way to do it. It is more a matter of living with vision, character, and integrity in the midst of a network of relationships.

Consequently, I have not been very gracious with the many leadership models that have emerged over the years with their neat steps, principles, habits, rungs, rings, or paths. Occasionally, I would try to put what I was learning into a formula or structure, but it always fell short.

I do not believe you can tell someone what to do in a future leadership situation. You have to be present and to act out of your vision, your values, with the full vulnerability that you might be wrong. Maybe that is why I like one of Peter Drucker's definitions of leadership: "Leadership is the risk of deciding when the alternatives are equal." It does not require leadership to choose when one choice is better. Leadership is the risk of choosing when every choice might be right—or wrong. It is the risk of leading in the muddle. It is hard to have a model for the muddle.

But that is what I am being asked to do now. The De Pree Leadership Center wants to understand and teach the leadership model of Max De Pree, to encourage leadership that nurtures more companies like Herman Miller, to develop more leaders who can serve the boards of non-profit organizations. We are trying to identify the teachable, reproducible factors that shaped Max De Pree and design a curriculum that will encourage other leaders along a similar development path to leadership.

I don't know if it is possible! But let me sketch out some of my thinking as I look into the De Pree Model of Leadership.

Five formative elements seem to emerge in conversation with Max De Pree: mentors and teachers, a philosophy or theology of management, the personal character and integrity of the leader, investing in others, and asking questions.

  1. Mentors and teachers. Max De Pree talks about the colonel in his army training who showed him the power of choice and helped him to see that there were often more choices available then those that are first presented. He speaks and writes often of the powerful influence of his father, D. J. De Pree, a man who understood his calling in life to be worked out partly through his role as a leader and manager of people and manufacturer of quality goods. He found in Carl Frost a brilliant advocate for people, a man who understood organizations, human relationships, and the power of ownership. He established a long-term relationship with Peter Drucker who coached him in the management of people and his development as a leader of Herman Miller. David Hubbard, his life-long friend and spiritual mentor, helped him to reflect on the ethical, moral, and faith dimensions of leadership and life.

    There is no question in De Pree's mind that who he is today, as a person and as a leader, was formed profoundly by his association with these mentors in his life. The mentors we choose shape the person we are and the leadership we offer.

  2. A philosophy of management. Max De Pree's convictions as a Christian also played a role in his leadership development. As he would say, some truths, once understood, shape the way we look at leadership, people, and organizations.

    • The leadership of God: Christian thinking about leadership starts with the recognition that God is the King—the leader—and all human leadership is exercised in service to God. Thus Max's attraction to the writings of Robert Greenleaf on servant leadership. Leadership for men and women is always about service, always carried out in the presence of God. Leadership is first about who you choose to follow.

    • Men and women created in the image of God: It is impossible to read the writings of Max De Pree without coming face to face with his concept of persons. Because he believes that human beings are created in the image of God, Max sees leadership starting with the premise that all persons have value, personal worth, and potential to be released and encouraged. People deserve respect; they deserve the space and opportunity to realize their potential before God. Leadership serves this truth, abandoning itself to the strengths of the people for whose success the leader is responsible.

    • The relational nature of life: Leadership is about relationships because life is about relationships. Men and women are created for relationship, for community. Leadership is always a relationship.

    • The gifted diversity and interdependence of human community: Each person has been gifted to contribute to as well as benefit from his or her engagement in community. For Max De Pree, this means that we need one another and that everyone has something to offer. Thus his strong emphasis on diversity and his ready insistence that each person has worth in him or herself and is a gift to the community.

    • The inclusion of the marginal: Community, however, is not just about diversity. The individual worth and contribution of each member is defined in relationship to the community of persons. Diversity has value only in the context of inclusion. And that, of course, is another important theme of Max De Pree, the inclusiveness of community. Everyone belongs; no one may be marginalized in true community if we take the image of God and diversity seriously. For Max De Pree, then, leaders have a particular responsibility to work for the inclusiveness of those who find themselves on the margins of our communities and organizations.

  3. The personal character and integrity of the leader. For Max De Pree to be who he is, however, requires more than just an assent to truth or an attachment to mentors and teachers. "The leader's touch must match his or her voice," he says. The beliefs, values, and commitments of a leader must be lived out in the behaviours of life and the actions of leadership. Leadership flows from character. Who we are shapes what we do. What we believe matters.

    The critical issue, however, is to determine that who we say we are and what we say we believe—our voice—is in fact what is reflected in our behavior—our touch. Integrity is the alignment of voice and touch, the consistent living out of our character intentionally and openly, seeking to become the person we purpose to be. Who we are matters. What we believe matters. The actions of leadership will always flow from our character. Integrity brings character, voice, and touch into the same space.

    In Max De Pree's case, two character traits have always impressed me: his confidence and his vulnerability. In some ways these seem antithetical. In another way they fit naturally together. As Esther De Pree notes, Max has always had an air of confidence about him. He has always been confident about his abilities and who he was. This confidence carried him through his years of leadership at Herman Miller and the many non-profit organizations of which he was a part and imparted a confidence to those who looked to him for leadership.

    At the same time, Max De Pree is known as a person who weeps. His sensitivity to people, to relationships, to beauty, and to truth often leave him open and vulnerable. It is not unusual to see him weep when emotionally touched by something. It is perhaps because of his confidence, his sense of self, that he is comfortable with vulnerability. Thus it is not surprising that two of the questions he likes to ask are: "Who do you intend to be?" and "What makes you weep?"

  4. The investment in others. The fourth element in my profile of Max De Pree is an extension of the first. Just as he sought mentors and teachers to follow in his own leadership development, he has continued this process by offering himself as a mentor and teacher of others. I am one who has benefited from this. Mentoring is a key platform in the leadership of Max De Pree. He was mentored, and he continues to mentor others. Partly this comes naturally, acting out a model that was beneficial to him. But partly, I believe, it is a way that he continues to learn. Just as teachers claim to learn more than students, Max De Pree believes that he learns as much from the people he mentors as they learn from him. As one whom he has mentored, I find that hard to accept, but I understand the principle. The exploration and articulation of beliefs with another person renews our own thinking and challenges our actions.

    For Max, however, sharing what he was learning was not limited to his service as a mentor and teacher. He also committed himself to the world of non-profit organizations. For over 30 years, he has served in various capacities on the boards of several non-profit organizations, offering his leadership experience and management expertise to committed missions organizations. But again, as much as he believed the business world had something to offer non-profit organizations, he also understood that the service sector of the non-profit world had much to teach corporations. Again, he saw himself as a servant and as a learner. Consistently for Max De Pree, leadership is about following and leading and continuing to follow, about learning and teaching and continuing to learn.

  5. The role of questions. It is not surprising that questions play such a significant role in Max De Pree's leading and mentoring. He loves to ask questions: Who do you intend to be? What promises are you making? What are you teaching? What are you learning? What legacy do you want to leave? Often, he has said that leadership is not about good answers. It is about good questions. Board leadership is about asking questions. Mentoring is about asking questions. Leaders lead through the questions they ask.

These five elements appear as recurring themes in the writings of Max De Pree and in his talks and conversations. It seems to me that to understand him you need to spend time with each of these five themes. But foundational to all five is a deep commitment to relationships—first with God then with mentors—because who you choose to follow shapes your leadership.

Whatever form the De Pree Leadership model takes, it will certainly have at its heart the mentoring relationship—the investment of one's self in the life and leadership of another. That may be the essence of the legacy of Max De Pree.

Topics: Leadership
Walter C. Wright Jr.
Walter C. Wright Jr.

Walter C. Wright, Jr., PhD, is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, where he served as executive director from 2000-2012. He came to this position after twelve years as president and professor of leadership at Regent College. He sits on the board of Cardus.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?