Leadership Is An Art – Max Depree

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Leadership Is An Art, Max Depree,
Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc., New York 1989

A Critique by  Dale Roach

Max Depree has made himself known in the business world as the chairman and CEO of Herman Miller, Inc. The record of this company is quite impressive. This company was named by Fortune magazine in 1989 as one of the ten best innovated and managed companies. One of the major strengths of the company presented in this book was that it was one of the best companies to work for in America.. This was not only supported by outside analysis but was also supported by those who worked for the company every day of the week.

A significantly different work philosophy is presented throughout this book. There is an unusual approach by Depree and his executives to “abandoning oneself to the strengths of others.”(xvi) This approach is quite different from the philosophies of many (maybe most) corporations. There is an approach in Depree’s management skills which trusts the talents and strengths of those who are hired to work in the company. (xviii)

This approach of Depree uses the skills of others to make the company maximize its success. When those who work for the company come forward with ideas to increase and improve productivity they are rewarded by the financial gains that result from their contribution to the company.(xiii) This strategy gives evidence of someone who has great trust in the individual yet there is a great level of respect that goes along with that trust. Enough respect to reward the individual through financial gain. Through this process the employees gain stock in the company and therefore a sense of ownership develops among the employees.(xviii) Where ownership develops there is usually a tendency to increase in respect and appreciation for the company and those you work for. Depree has a clear understanding of a process such as this.

Another great distinctive relating to Depree and Herman Miller is that it is seen as a place of integrity by those outside of the company as well as the employees.(xvii) This element of business characteristics can never be underestimated. Depree is a prime example of what moral business achieves. In reading this book there were several occasion in which Depree used scripture as the introduction to the chapter. In his chapter on “Whiter Capitalism” Depree uses I Corinthians 9:7-9 as his introduction and follows these verse with these comments,

In our effort to understand the capitalist system and its future, what should we keep in mind? We should begin with the concept of persons. First, as a Christian I believe each person is made in the image of God. For those of us who have received the of leadership from the people we lead, this belief has enormous implication. Second, God has given people a great diversity of gifts. Understanding the diversity of our gifts enable us to begin taking the crucial step of trusting each other….. Third, I believe that God, for reason that we may not always understand, has provided us a population mix – a population mix for which leaders are held accountable.(63-64)

Depree’s approach in leading his company and his employees is to liberate “people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible.”(xx) A key thought that strikes at the heart of Depree’s business philosophy is to abandon yourself as a leader to the strengths of those you work with.(xxi) Although this is an ideal and biblical philosophy it is one that is embraced by few business leaders today.

Depree also presents a true leader as a listener. (xxi) One of the most moving stories in the entire book dealt with a millwright who worked for Decree’s father. Depree recalls his father hearing the widow of the millwright reading poetry upon the man’s death and finding out to his amazement that the mill worker was the poet. According to Depree this story points out that it is important that leaders encourage the concept of the individual person.(8-9) The ability to understand, embrace, and accept diversity is extremely important.

Depree supports the conviction that diversity leads to an understanding that we are all needed.(9) The complexity of the individual introduces creative diversity. The church could benefit greatly from such a philosophy. There has been a tendency in some congregations to stifle the creative and unique person. This has been done on some occasions due to the fear of the different and unique. Depree does not see this as something to be fearful of but rather something to encourage.

As a leader Degree pointed out several themes throughout this book that have a strong connection with the way Christ led and prepared His disciples and followers. One point that I feel is very applicable to the church is when Depree wrote “structures do not have anything to do with trust. People build trust.”(29) This issue of structure and trust is one that I believe many churches are struggling with today. There are issues dealing with transition and growth that churches simply are not prepared to deal with. Depree put transition, growth, and change best when he said, “Anything truly creative results in change and if there is one thing a well-run, bureaucracy or institution or major corporation finds difficult to handle, it is change.”(33) This without a doubt defines most of the Baptist churches that I have been a part of in my lifetime.

Depree’s approach to management obviously has a biblical base. He presents the best process as one that is based upon 1) participative management and 2) convenient relationships. (61) In other words all employees should feel that they have a significant role in the company and that their involvement in the company carries with it a formal, binding agreement. This is unique yet very successful for Herman Miller, Inc.

A very beneficial point that Depree presents for anyone in leadership but especially for leaders in the church deals with “exclusiveness.” According to Depree, “exclusiveness breeds selfishness.” (66) This phrase certainly could benefit any congregation that is trying to reach the world for Christ. We defeat our purposes of the Great Commission when we look at ourselves as the one and only. We face great challenges when we introduce ourselves to a lost world.

According to Depree our beliefs will always face challenges when inclusion and changes are introduced. However, change is something that is going to happen and it cannot be avoided. (91) Although change will be introduced this does not mean that the moral base of who we are diminishes. In fact, Depree believes that “ownership demands increasing maturity one everyone’s part.”(99) “We cannot become what we need by remaining what we are.”(100)

In reading Depree’s writing there is a wealth of practical information for someone leading in the church today. One comment that can be embraced as sound counsel is “it is better to err on the side of sharing too much information than risk leaving someone in the dark.”(104)

Depree presents communication as essentially important for the survival of any organization. I agree with his theories. He says that “only through good communication can we convey and preserve a common corporate vision.”(107) His thesis on communication includes the need for leaders to “sharpen” and help “enact” the vision of the organization. (107) These acts of any leader will enable or cripple the purpose and mission of the organization.

Communication cannot be ignored. A strong and memorable quote used by Depree to describe the need for clear communication was by Plato. “Plato said that a society cultivates whatever is honored there.” (108)

This is a good quote to use in team development. “What is of value here?” Depree goes on to give an easy way in understanding any congregation. That which an organization values is “it’s life’s blood.”(108)

Depree notes that this list will help leaders recognize signals of impending deterioration in their organization. These signs are:

  • a tendency toward superficiality
  • a dark tension among key people
  • no longer having time for celebration and ritual
  • a growing feeling that rewards and goals are the same thing
  • when people stop telling tribal stories or cannot understand them
  • a recurring effort by some to convince others that business is, after all, quite simple (The acceptance of complexity and ambiguity and the ability to deal with them constructively are essential.)
  • when people begin to have different understandings of words like “responsibility” or “service” or “trust”
  • when problem-makers outnumber problem-solvers
  • when folks confuse heroes and celebrities
  • leaders who seek to control rather than liberate
  • when the pressures of day-to-day operations push aside our concern for vision and risk (I think you know that vision and risk can never be separated.)
  • an orientation toward the dry rules of business school rather than a value orientation that takes into account such things contribution, spirit, excellence, beauty, and joy
  • when people speak of customers as impositions on their time rather than as opportunities to serve
  • manuals
  • a growing urge to quantify both history and one’s thoughts about the future (You may be familiar with people who take a look at a prototype and say, “In 1990 we’ll sell $6,493,000 worth”– nothing is more devastating because then you plan either to make that happen or to avoid it.)
  • the urge to establish ratios
  • leaders who rely on structures instead of people
  • a loss of confidence in judgment, experience, and wisdom
  • a loss of grace and style and civility
  • a loss of respect for the English language

Dale Roach

Who is Dale Roach?

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