Leadership is an Art

Leadership is an Art by Max De Pree


Max De Pree was the CEO of Herman Miller, Inc. and later served on its board of directors.

Leadership is an Art is part business book and part memoir. It deals less with facts and history of the company and more with beliefs and relationships of the author.

Everything in the corporate world has a "how" and a "why." Profit is the hoped-for result of the "how."

But as Max says, "Those results, however, are only a way to measure our resourcefulness at a point in time, mile markers on a long road. Why we get those results is more important. That’s what this book is about."

How to Read a Book

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In the introduction of this book Max talks about how he hopes this book will be read and interpreted. 

Leadership is an art, something to be learned over time, not simply by reading books.

This echoes the arguments between philosophers and "philosophologists," or "The Man in the Arena" versus the arm chair professor. Knowledge and skill is useless if not used.

He talks about how reading is a deep and interactive act. 

In some sense, every reader “finishes” every book according to his or her experiences and needs and beliefs and potential. That is the way you can really own a book. Buying books is easy; owning them is not.

He encourages the reader to write in the book and to make notes in the margins and between the lines. Take possession of the book. Comment on it. Ask questions about it.

You can read this book quickly, but I hope you cannot finish it quickly. It will be worth a lot more to you if you finish it, if you have made it truly your own book.

Much of the wisdom he imparts in this section is good advice for reading any book.

Further Reading:

  • For more on how to get the most from your reading, read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler.
  • The difference between philosophy and 'philosophology' is discussed in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Lila, both by Robert Pirsig.
  • The speech of the Man in the Arena is from the essay Citizenship in a Republic by Theodore Roosevelt.

What is Leadership?

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Max defines leadership as the art of liberating people to do what is required of them in the most efficient and humane way possible.

When we think about leaders and the variety of gifts people bring to corporations and institutions, we see that the art of leadership lies in polishing and liberating and enabling those gifts.

Max encourages the reader to think about leadership as it's defined by the gospel Luke, as "one who serves." In thinking about this idea of servant leadership, of leaders who don't inflict pain but bear it, Max defines four pillars of leadership.

Leaders should leave behind them assets and a legacy.

Leaders owe their institutions vital financial health, and the relationships and reputation that enable continuity of that financial health.

Leaders can be only focused on assets, or they can go beyond that.

Leaders have the opportunity to leave a legacy, a legacy that takes into account the more difficult, qualitative side of life, one which provides greater meaning, more challenge, and more joy in the lives of those whom leaders enable.

Leaders are obligated to provide and maintain momentum.

Leaders are also responsible for future leadership. They need to identify, develop, and nurture future leaders.

Momentum comes from a clear vision of what the corporation ought to be, from a well-thought-out strategy to achieve that vision, and from carefully conceived and communicated directions and plans that enable everyone to participate and be publicly accountable in achieving those plans.

Leaders are responsible for effectiveness.

As Peter Drucker has written, "efficiency is doing the thing right, but effectiveness is doing the right thing."

Leaders can delegate efficiency, but they must deal personally with effectiveness.

Leaders can affect organizational efficiency by enabling others, and encouraging roving leadership.

Business live and die by the people who run them. It is the leader's job to see potential in people and to delegate responsibilities accordingly. "Leaders choose a person, not a position."

Roving leadership is the delegation of leadership in specific situations. More on roving leadership in a later chapter.

Leaders must take a role in developing, expressing, and defending civility and values.

Leaders owe a clear statement of values of the organization. Values should be universally understood and agreed upon and should shape corporate and individual behavior.

In a civilized institution or corporation, we see good manners, respect for persons, an understanding of “good goods,” and an appreciation of the way in which we serve each other.

Leaders should promote a culture that understands and appreciates diversity. Accepting diversity enables us to see that each of us is needed and that we must rely on each other.

Diversity allows each of us to contribute in a special way, to make our special gift a part of the corporate effort. Recognizing diversity helps us to understand the need we have for opportunity, equity, and identity in the workplace.

Further Reading:

  • For more on stewardship and servant leadership, read Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf.

What Do We Need Out of Our Work?

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Our work is a large part of our lives, both in time and in impact. Too often employees see themselves as two selves, the person and the worker. We need to eliminate this discontinuity to restore a sense of coherence and balance in our lives.

Work should be and can be productive and rewarding, meaningful and maturing, enriching and fulfilling, healing and joyful. Work is one of our greatest privileges. Work can even be poetic.

Max lays out eight rights that workers should have.

The right to be needed.

The ability for employees to use their gifts and to be an important part of the business.

The right to be needed, of course, includes a meaningful personal relationship to the group’s goals.

The right to be involved.

Employees have the right to be involved in the decision making of the company.

  • A system of input- leaders must encourage the involvement of the workers.
  • A system of response - leaders must genuinely listen to the workers. There can be no trust in an organization that asks people to contribute their ideas and then to exclude them from the evaluation, the decision-making process, and the implementation.
  • Take action - together, leaders and workers must translate the interaction into products and services for the customers.
The price of involvement is that leaders must be genuinely open to the influence of others.

The right to a covenantal relationship.

Covenantal relationships enable our work to be meaningful and to be fulfilling. Covenantal relationships, more easily that contractual relationships, can manage conflict and change.

True covenants, however, are risky because they require us to be abandoned to the talents and skills of others, and therefore to be vulnerable.

The right to understand.

Employees have the right to understand the mission of the organization and the strategies used to achieve those goals. 

Everyone has the right to understand his or her personal career path. We all need to know the opportunities in this group and how we can realize them.

The right to affect one's own destiny

There are few things that are as important to personal dignity as the opportunity to change and influence one's own future.

The processes of performance evaluation, promotion, and transfer should always take place with the person’s involvement.

The right to be accountable

Accountability is the opportunity to influence and contribute to the group or organization's goals. We need to share the problems and the inherent risk. We need to be measured according to previously understood and accepted standards of performance and have conversations about this is a respectful manner. 

At the heart of being accountable is the matter of caring. In many areas of business, sadly, “to care” is an innovation.

The right to appeal

Employees should have a nonthreatening avenue of appeal built into the group's structure. A process for appeal ensures that arbitrary leaderships doesn't threaten any of the employees' above rights. 

One of the most important responsibilities of leaders is to work hard at offering these rights to those we lead.

The right to make a commitment

What exactly is the right to make a commitment?

To make a commitment, any employee should be able to answer “yes” to the following question: Is this a place where they will let me do my best?

How can leaders expect a commitment from the people they lead, if those people feel thwarted and hindered?

One of the key inhibitors to the right to commitment in corporations today occurs when, in the perception of those who follow, the leadership is not rational. One of the key responsibilities of leadership is the obligation to be rational.

Further Reading:

  • For more on work-life balance, read The ONE Thing by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan

Roving Leadership

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In many organizations there are two kinds of leaders: hierarchical leaders and roving leaders.

  • Hierarchical leaders are the supervisors, managers, and executives.
  • Roving leaders are those indispensable people who are there when we need them. The people who did respond swiftly and effectively to situations. 

It can be difficult for a hierarchy to allow “subordinates” to break custom and be leaders but roving leaders take charge, in varying degrees, in a lot of companies every day.

Participation is the opportunity and responsibility to have a say in your job, to have influence over the management of organizational resources based on your own competence and your willingness to accept problem ownership. No one person is the “expert” at everything.

It’s not easy to let someone else take the lead. To do this demands a special openness and the ability to recognize what is best for the organization and how best to respond to a given issue.

Roving leadership is the expression of the ability of hierarchical leaders to permit others to share ownership of problems— in effect, to take possession of a situation.

Roving leadership demands a great deal of trust and a clear sense of our interdependence.

Who Owns the Business?

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Broadly speaking, there are three categories of owners in the typical American corporation.

  1. The first group, those normally thought of as owners, invest mere cash in the business.
  2. The second, because they have dedicated their working years to the corporation, invest their lives and their gifts in the corporation.
  3. The third group, essential contributors to the corporation, invest some special skill or talent or creative energy and have a strong commitment to the corporation, but part-time.

Herman Miller, the company of which Max acted as CEO, is one of the few public companies in the United States where 100 percent of the full-time regular employees in the U.S. who have completed one year of service are stockholders.

If anyone is to serve the corporation, either as a professional consultant or as a full-time employee and owner, that person must understand the attitudes of ownership.

At Herman Miller, there is an owner and an employee in every position. These two roles bring responsibilities and rewards.

Employee stock ownership is essential to a declaration of identity.

Employee stock ownership is also clearly a competitive reality.

Nothing is being given. Ownership is earned and paid for. The heart of it is profit sharing, and there is no sharing if there are no profits. Risk and reward are connected logically and fairly.

In the end, it is important to remember that we cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are. 

The capitalist system cannot avoid being better off by having more employees who act as if they own the place.

Where to Buy

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Buy the book on AmazonBarnes and NobleBAM, or just Google it. (I receive no kickback or commission for these links or summaries. See my disclosure for more.)


  • The intimacy and superficiality of work
  • The three key elements to working with another person
  • Covenantal relationships
  • How to approach performance reviews
  • Why leaders should be concerned with Mahatma Gandhi's 'Seven Sins'
  • Choosing your go-to-person, your vice president.
  • Why you should cry over your work. 
  • And much, much more!
Erik Cianci