Max De Pree, Peter Drucker and the Art of Leadership
October 16th, 2017
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.
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.