Leadership Is an Art

Author: Max De Pree
Reviewer:  Bob Moore

leadershipLeadership Is An Art is one of the most widely read examples of transformational, empowering and servant leadership models. De Pree advocates that the art of leadership is liberating people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible. It is the first of De Pree’s books on leadership, with a wide readership that includes Christian leaders and leadership coaches. His subsequent books are Leading Without Power (2003) and Leadership Jazz (2008).

Of the dozen or so books published in the last few years that have stressed the role of the leader in achieving corporate excellence, this is the one that puts forward one forgotten but essential truth about leadership: Leaders have ideas. The value of this book can best be communicated by providing some samples of De Pree’s wisdom generously sprinkled throughout the book.

A Leader’s Responsibility and Obligation

“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 debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.”

“The art of leadership requires us to think about the leader-as-steward in terms of relationships: of assets and legacy, of momentum and effectiveness, of civility and values.”

“Leaders are obligated to provide and maintain momentum.”

Participative Management
De Pree was an early advocate and believed that the most effective contemporary management process is participative management. Participative management guarantees that decisions will not be arbitrary, secret, or closed to questioning. It is not democratic. Having a say differs from having a vote. He famously said, “Participative management arises out of the heart and out of a personal philosophy about people. It cannot be added to or subtracted from a corporate policy manual as though it were one more managerial tool.”

Team Member’s Rights

In almost every group, nearly everybody at different times and in different ways plays two roles: One is creator, and the other is implementer. This key relationship is often underestimated and mistakenly cast in the light of “boss” and “subordinate.” Hierarchy is inappropriate here. De Pree advocated the following rights of team members:

1) the right to be needed;

2) the right to be involved;

3) the right to a covenantal relationship;

4) the right to understand;

5) the right to affect one’s own destiny;

6) the right to be accountable;

7) the right to appeal;

8) the right to make a commitment.

What Is Leadership?

The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers. Are the followers reaching their potential? Are they learning? Serving? Do they achieve the required results? Leaders are responsible for effectiveness. Efficiency is doing the thing right, but effectiveness is doing the right thing. Effectiveness comes about through enabling others to reach their potential.

The only kind of leadership worth following is based on vision. Leaders, in a special way, are liable for what happens in the future, rather than what is happening day to day. When talking about leadership, one always ends up talking about the future, about leaving a legacy, about followers. In other words, leadership intertwines the most important aspects of an organization: its people and its future. We need, therefore, to proceed very slowly and carefully.


Effective Communication

Communication clarifies the vision. The best way to communicate the basis of a corporation’s or institution’s values is through behavior. A corporation’s values are its lifeblood. Without effective communication, actively practiced, without the art of scrutiny, those values will disappear in a sea of trivial memos and impertinent reports. There may be no single thing more important in our efforts to achieve meaningful work and fulfilling relationships than to learn and practice the art of communication.


De Pree emphasized that leaders need to learn to recognize the following signals of impending deterioration:

When there is . . .

A tendency toward superficiality, no longer having time for celebration and ritual, And . . .

– People begin to have different understandings of words like “responsibility” or “service” or “trust” [or when they] speak of customers as impositions on their time rather than as opportunities to serve,

– Problem-makers outnumber problem-solvers,

– The pressures of day-to-day operations push aside our concern for vision and risk (which are inseparable),

– A loss of confidence in judgment, experience, and wisdom . . . .  grace, style and civility.

Summary Comment

Joy is an essential ingredient of leadership. Leaders are obligated to provide it. Goals and rewards are only different parts of human activity. When rewards become our goals, we are only pursuing part of our work. Goals are to be pursued. In healthy relationships, rewards complete the process by bringing joy.

About the Author

Max De Pree held a variety of positions with the Herman Miller Corporation for over 40 years and left 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-centered 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. 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.

Click here to order Leadership Is an ArtCurrent price: $8.96 (148 pages Paperback)

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