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How Max De Pree's Career Exemplifies Drucker's Art Of Leadership

Contributor: Bruce Rosenstein
Posted: November 5, 2017

Max De Pree

I was saddened recently to learn of the August 8th death, at 92, of Max De Pree, who had an illustrious career as CEO and Chairman of the innovative furniture/design company Herman Miller. 

Today’s leaders and managers are under pressure to make breakthroughs in creativity and innovation for their organizations. Yet many struggle with this idea, and can’t relate well to creative, innovative people. 

Max De Pree, in his years at Herman Miller, worked with creative people of many varieties, including artists, designers and architects. His writings about creativity and related subjects have a timeless quality that are applicable for managers and leaders of today and tomorrow. 

In 1989, after he retired as CEO but while remaining as Chairman, he also started a parallel career as a best-selling leadership author; particularly with his first book, Leadership is an Art; the follow-up Leadership Jazz, and in 1997, with Leading Without Power: Finding Hope in Serving Community. These slim volumes are eloquent, full of wisdom of various types, and spiritually reflective of De Pree’s deep Christian faith.  

Leadership is an Art contains De Pree’s best-known quotation: “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.”  As you can infer from those words, he was a proponent of, and wrote about, Robert K. Greenleaf’s concept of Servant Leadership

De Pree was also a longtime friend and consulting client of Peter Drucker, who provided a back-cover endorsement of Leadership is an Art. (Leadership Jazz has a front-cover Drucker endorsement.) In 1990, in his book Managing the Non-Profit Organization, Drucker conducted a Q&A/extended conversation with De Pree that reveals a lot about the character of both men. 

Given that De Pree was a corporate chairman when the book was published, why was he featured in a book about nonprofits? The answer is that he also had a lot of experience in that area, including as a board member of the Fuller Theological Seminary. The latter institution is also the home of Max De Pree Center for Leadership

Despite the deaths of Drucker and De Pree, there are still considerable ties between the worlds of Herman Miller and Drucker. For instance, the Chairman of the Board of Advisors of the Drucker Institute is former Herman Miller executive Curt Pullen. The company also designed the Institute’s office space. 

On the Drucker Archives, you can read a charming, handwritten letter from 1998 by De Pree to Drucker. Rick Wartzman of the Institute recently interviewed the current Herman Miller CEO for a podcast, “Creating the Office of Tomorrow with Herman Miller’s Brian Walker.

Although I did not know De Pree personally, I interviewed him by phone in 2004 as background for my first book,Living in More Than One World: How Peter Drucker’s Wisdom Can Inspire and Transform Your Life, and wrote about him briefly in Create Your Future the Peter Drucker Way.

In 2001, ten years before I became managing editor of Leader to Leader, De Pree wrote an article for the publication, “Creative Leadership.” Our new, Fall 2017 issue has an article by Michele Hunt, a former Herman Miller executive, “Innovating for the Greater Good: The New Definition of Success.” 

In our 2010 Special Issue: Celebrating the Peter F. Drucker Centennial, Michele contributed the article “Peter Drucker: A Generous Spirit.”

Here are the top 5 quotes from Max De Pree’s “Creative Leadership,” article. These takeaways still ring true today: 

1) “A leader protects creative persons from the bureaucracy and legalism so ensconced in our organizations.” 

2) “A leader remains vulnerable to real surprise and to true quality.” 

3) “Financial and legal matters are truly important, but they do not lie at the heart of our future. Resist the urge to structure all things alike.” 

4) “Cynicism has no place in an organization, but leaders welcome the committed skeptic who wants to be held accountable and demands a share of the risk.”

5) “Leaders make it possible for creative persons to make something out of nothing—nothing, that is, but expressions of themselves.” 

The life/work example of Max De Pree, and his legacy at Herman Miller and beyond, will continue to provide inspiration for generations of leaders, and aspiring leaders, in all sectors of society.

To learn more about De Pree, consult some of the obituaries and tributes that have been published since his death: 

Notes & Sources: 

Fuller Theological Seminary: His Leadership Was an Art, Celebrating Max De Pree, 1924-2017
 Herman Miller (press release): Remembering Max De Pree 1924–2017
Herman Miller WHY Magazine: Max De Pree, 1924-2017
Mlive: Max De Pree, former Herman Miller CEO and bestselling author, dies at 92
 The Wall Street Journal: Max De Pree, Author and Executive, Sought Deeper Bonds With Employees