What's Under the Apple?
What's Under the Apple?

What's Under the Apple?

Products become obsolete; people grow. Which legacy of leadership is likely to stand the test of time?

March 1 st 2012
Appears in Spring 2012

On April 9, 1992, Steve Jobs and Max De Pree were inducted into the National Business Hall of Fame. They were selected by the editors of Fortune Magazine for their impact on business. Both men changed their industries significantly, leaving a visible legacy in this world.

Max De Pree and Steve Jobs, two leaders passionate about the intersection of art and technology, led two companies—Herman Miller and Apple—to industry-changing prominence. I just finished reading Walter Isaacson's excellent biography of Steve Jobs, and I am writing on my iPad, purchased the day of its release: April 12, 2010. This is my first venture into the wonderful world of Apple. On the other hand, Max De Pree has been a friend and mentor for over 25 years, and I am sitting in an Eames chair, with my iPad working on a beautiful Herman Miller desk. The beautiful art and technology of my iPad feels young and restless surrounded by the elegance and quality of the furniture under it.

Max De Pree took over the company founded by his father, D. J. De Pree, and led Herman Miller during years of innovative growth to become the top-ranked company in the industry in Fortune's survey of America's most admired corporations. With the introduction of Action Office, Herman Miller changed the way we thought about office furniture. Embracing the creative minds of Gilbert Rohde, Robert Probst, George Nelson, Charles Eames, and Bill Stumpf, Herman Miller brought art and design into the home and workplace so dramatically that museums still showcase their furniture today.

Steve Jobs founded Apple Computers with Stephen Wozniak in 1976, and with the launch of the Apple II, established the personal computer. Fueled by passionate emotion, focused intensity and controlling willpower, he is credited for transforming six industries: personal computers, music, phones, animated movies, tablet computing, and publishing. To that list can be added revisioning of the design of retail stores.

Both De Pree and Jobs lived at the intersection of art and technology, beauty and function, innovation and quality. Both men believed, as D. J. De Pree said, that "quality is truth." It is an aesthetic experience to relax in an Eames Lounge with feet up on the Ottoman, or work in an Aeron chair before a beautiful walnut desk. Comfort, function, and simplicity are evident, but the elegance of design arrests the eye. When the iPad first arrived, I was amused at the YouTube clips of customers opening the box. Only later did I learn that that was part of Jobs' design. He wanted the purchase of an Apple product to be an aesthetic experience, from the store, through the unwrapping, to the instructionless ease of operation.

Apple products, like Herman Miller products, are designed with integrity. The inside, hidden to the eye, is intentionally as beautiful as the outside. Quality is truth and it resides in the heart of the product as well as the mind of the leader. In many ways this commitment to design, to working at the intersection of art and technology, separated Herman Miller and Apple from their competitors. From similar visions, two great companies were developed. Apple is now the most valuable company in the world, and Herman Miller is still leading its industry 25 years after Max De Pree retired as CEO.

De Pree's leadership at Herman Miller was held up as a model in many of the leadership texts written in the 90s. His two books on leadership, Leadership is an Art and Leadership Jazz, continue to be reprinted, translated, and read around the world. Some consider Leadership is an Art, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, to be among the top ten leadership books written. Many quotes from this book have become popular and circle the world in books, articles, and internet posts.

Perhaps the most quoted sentence in De Pree's writing, from Leadership is an Art, is "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality." Leadership defines reality; it focuses the mission, clarifies the constraints, provides accurate feedback, recognizes the context, and establishes expectations. As Max De Pree defined reality, the people at Herman Miller thrived and Herman Miller grew, distributing a legacy of design and quality around the world.

Fascinatingly, Steve Jobs is also known for defining reality. However, the most frequent description of Jobs' leadership is "reality distortion" (see Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs). Jobs had a vision of what he wanted and he willed that to be reality. His high energy and control imposed his will upon those around him, from his parents to his employees. He declared what would be whether or not it matched the reality perceived by others. His view of reality was distorted by his will.

Yet over and over, that will created the reality. People who knew he was wrong performed as though he were right. Employees who realized that something could not possibly be done the way Jobs demanded did it anyway, to their own amazement at their achievement. By imposing his will and controlling everything, he did distort reality, often creating new reality for those who followed. The legacy of his distorted, unrealistic expectations is a highly successful company with products sought around the world.

However, there is more to leadership legacy than elegant products and productive companies. The lasting legacy of leadership is found in the minds of people long after the leader is gone. Products will be replaced and maybe preserved in museums. People incarnate what they learn from legacy and pass it on in relationships for generations to come. Note that the second half of De Pree's statement does not get as much press as the first: "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you." Leaders are dependent upon followers for anything to be accomplished. The legacy of leadership is people.

And here Max De Pree has more to say. Max De Pree believes that leadership can be designed.

In his writing, De Pree articulates a philosophy of management that shaped his leadership at Herman Miller and leaves a legacy for generations to come. We might summarize this legacy as belief, business, people, character, and creativity.

Aligning voice and touch

You do not have to read deeply into Max De Pree to encounter the bedrock of his management philosophy: Belief is intimately connected to behaviour. This is captured powerfully in the opening story of Leadership Jazz, where a wise nurse tells De Pree to stroke his premature granddaughter's arm when he tells her he loves her, so she learns to connect voice and touch. Voice and touch, belief and behaviour belong together in life and in leadership. Woven through all of his writing is the assumption that the beliefs that support our character and values shape our behaviour and leadership. What we believe about life, relationships, creation, and truth controls how we act.

Two such beliefs are embedded in the quote about defining reality: "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." For De Pree, leadership is an act of service. Leaders are servants. They serve the mission; they serve the customers; they serve the product; they serve the employees; and they serve the shareholders. Leadership is never about serving the leader.

Consequently, De Pree never asks, what does the leader deserve? Rather, he wonders, what does a leader owe? Leaders are in debt to those who follow, who make it possible for missions to be achieved. Leaders owe their followers leadership that makes it possible to achieve, and space to realize their potential personally and together.

This fundamental posture of leader as servant and debtor flows from his deeper convictions about life and creation. Max De Pree's behaviour as a manager is grounded in his Christian faith. Acknowledging that we are all created beings makes us followers from the start. God is the leader; we follow. Any leadership we are privileged to exercise is delegated responsibility to serve the work of God in the world. Recognizing that everyone is created in the image of God requires us to treat others with dignity, respect, and worth, and to do our best to provide the opportunity to exercise the gifts that God has given them. These foundational Christian beliefs lead to a high concept of persons and leadership as a gracious act of service. In this way, belief precedes behaviour; voice and touch are aligned.

Inclusive Capitalism

Committed to the assumption that belief precedes behaviour and shapes the leadership of business, Max De Pree leads with an eye on the bottom line. He managed a business that had customers, shareholders, and employees to serve—a company that must make a profit to stay in business and serve those constituencies. Part of the legacy De Pree leaves for leadership is stated clearly by the Fortune editors who chose him for the Business Hall of Fame: "Max De Pree preached and proved that corporations can be caring, nurturing places and still make money . . . He showed that a caring environment and commercial success can be combined."

A high concept of person does not lead to a soft bottom line. Quite the contrary—releasing the potential of people promotes innovation and creativity. A few years ago, Herman Miller interviewed De Pree for the company's video archives. In the process of the interview, De Pree was asked how his father, brother, and he had created the deeply caring and highly productive culture at Herman Miller. De Pree responded that the business focused on three things: innovation, marketing, and people. To be the quality business they wanted to be, they needed innovation. To that end, the company abandoned itself to the vision and gifts of creative designers—whose names are still celebrated for their innovative impact on design, furniture, and office systems.

But as De Pree notes, no one buys innovation; it has to be marketed. So the company developed an effective marketing program to make their products accessible. And he continues, innovation requires good marketing, and marketing requires good people. It is the people of Herman Miller who design the high quality products, who develop the marketing processes, who build the beautiful furniture.

The bottom line of business for Max De Pree starts with people.

Vice President for People

The title bestowed on the traditional HR function at Herman Miller underlines the belief in people. People created in the image of God are cared for and nurtured and given the space to learn and grow, to belong and contribute to the company. The Vice President for People existed for the development of people, not the management of employee regulations. Together with the Scanlon Plan—an extensive program of participative management— people were included in design, in decisions, in productivity, and in profits. Policies and procedures were developed to support and encourage people, to polish their gifts, to embrace their participation. Inclusiveness is a key belief in De Pree's philosophy of management. He believed that people have the right to belong, to be taken seriously, to be treated with respect, and to be invited to participate in the benefits of community.

While other leaders have articulated this critical principle of leadership, De Pree goes a step further, calling leaders to intentionally include the marginalized. He sees leadership as having a particular responsibility to draw in those on the margins, those who lack the skills or resources to promote their gifts and contribution, their ideas and wisdom. Leaders give them voice, belonging, and benefit. As created persons of worth, everyone deserves the opportunity to learn, grow, belong, serve, and benefit from participation in community. The elegant products produced by the company are the work of the people who comprise the community.

"They Trust Me"

Community is built from relationships of trust; trust flows from integrity of character. Integrity is the alignment of voice and touch, belief and behaviour. It all goes together, sewn into one seamless tapestry. It is the character of leaders that influences whether or not someone will choose to follow, to accept the leadership influence. That choice finds purchase in the integrity and consistency of the leader. Do we do what we say we will do? Are we credible? Can we be trusted?

The character and values of the leader are communicated through the relationship of leadership and take root in the organizational culture. Companies have character also. Reward systems align with expectations to produce results and engender trust. If quality is truth, leadership is trust. Max De Pree notes that when George Nelson was asked why he made his great designs available through Herman Miller, a little company in Zeeland, Michigan, he responded, "They trust me."

Trust is the lifeblood of community. It creates its own legacy.

Like Steve Jobs, Max De Pree champions creativity, beauty and design. That is evident when you walk into a Herman Miller plant—lush grounds, environmentally sustainable buildings, generous space, and humane policies. A stroll through Herman Miller grounds prepares one for the quality of its products. Creativity is honoured, design is valued, beauty is appreciated.

And again, belief precedes this behaviour. When De Pree asked George Nelson to explain the creative process, Nelson replied, "Creation has happened; our job is discovery." Leadership creates space for the gifts of creation to be discovered—the resources of the earth, the talents of people, the innovation of design, the beauty of seeing. Leadership provides two things for creativity: space and constraint. Space provides opportunity to dream, to envision, to design, to discover. Constraints focus innovation, channeling creative discovery into productive results. Both require trust. And the legacy is beautiful.

Aligning voice and touch, innovation and people, contribution and participation, relationships and trust, creativity and discovery: this is the philosophy of leadership designed and modelled by Max De Pree.

Both De Pree and Jobs left their marks on the industries they served. Action Office changed the shape of the furniture industry and the designers Rhode, Nelson, Eames, and Stumpf turned furniture into art. The Apple II changed forever the shape of personal computers, Pixar the future of animated movies, the iPod and iPad the distribution of music and the face of publishing, and the iPhone defined the possibilities of mobile communications.

Max De Pree also left his mark on the design of leadership. For Max De Pree, the measure of leadership is found in the people, the tone of the body. The legacy of Steve Jobs is seen in the products that blossomed from his creative vision and controlling will.

It is tempting to distinguish the legacy of leadership left by these two men as one between people and products. Both attracted creative people, both built great companies, both produced elegant products. But only one is known for the humanity of the community he left behind. Products become obsolete; people grow. Which legacy of leadership is likely to stand the test of time?

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.


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