Leadership Is An Art | Notes & Review

Posted on September 4, 2005


Max DePree. Leadership Is An Art. Dell Trade Paperback, 1989. (148 pages)

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. (xix)

The art of leadership, as Max says, is “liberating people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible.” To do this effectively requires clear thinking about their own beliefs: They must have thought through their assumptions about human nature, the role of the organization, the measurement of performance (and the host of other issues…) (xx)

In short, the true leader is a listener. The leader listens to the ideas, needs, aspirations, and wishes of the followers and then — within the context of his or her own well-developed system of beliefs — responds to these in an appropriate fashion. That is why the leader must know his own mind. That is why leadership requires ideas. And that is what this book is: a compendium of ideas about organizational leadership. (xxi)


The book is about the art of leadership: liberating people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible. (1)

“How” is normal and essential. Why we get those results is more important. (2)

Charles Eames taught me the usefulness of repetition. I often repeat myself, by design, to establish something and then connect it to something else. (3)

Leadership is an art, something to be learned over time, not simply by reading books. Leadership is more tribal than scientific, more a weaving of relationships than an amassing of information, and, in that sense, I don’t know how to pin it down in every detail. (3)

Buying books is easy; owning them is not. (3)


…it is fundamental that leaders endorse a concept of persons. This begins with an understanding of the diversity of people’s gifts and talents and skills. Understanding and accepting diversity enables us to see that each of us is needed. (39) It also helps us to understand that for many of us there is a fundamental difference between goals and rewards. (10)


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. That sums up the progress of an artful leader. (11)

“Leaders don’t inflict pain; they bear pain.” (11)

The measure of leadership is not the quality of the head, but the tone of the body. 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? Do they change with grace? Manage conflict? (12)

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. (12)

People are the heart and spirit of all that counts. (13)

Leaders need to be concerned with the institutional value system which, after all, leads to the principles and standards that guide the practices of the people in the institution. (14)

Leaders owe a covenant to the corporation or institution, which is, after all, a group of people. Leaders owe the organization a new reference point for what caring, purposeful, committed people can be in the institutional setting. Notice I did not say what people can do — what we can do is merely a consequence of what we can be. (15)

Leaders owe the corporation rationality. Rationality gives reason and mutual understanding to programs and to relationships. (16)

Leaders are obligated to provide and maintain momentum. (17)

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… (19)

A leader must be a judge of people. For leaders choose a person, not a position. (20)

Leaders must take a role in developing, expressing, and defending civility and values. (21)

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. – Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (22)

To be a leader means, especially, having the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who permit leaders to lead. (22)


What is it most of us really want from work? …to find the most effective, most productive, most rewarding way of working together. …to know that our work process uses all of the appropriate and pertinent resources: human, physical, financial …a work process and relationships that meet our personal needs for belonging, for contributing, for meaningful work, for the opportunity to make a commitment, for the opportunity to grow and be at least reasonably in control of our own destinies. Finally we’d like someone to say “Thank you!” (23)

I believe that the most effective contemporary management process is participative management. (24) Participative management guarantees that decisions will not be arbitrary, secret, or closed to questioning. participative management is not democratic. Having a say differs from having a vote. (25)

Leaders need to foster environments and work processes within which people can develop high-quality relationships… (25)

  • Respect people.
  • Understand that what we believe precedes policy and practice. As practice is to policy, so style is to belief.
  • Agree on the rights of work.
  • Understand the respective role and relationship of contractual agreements and covenants. Volunteers do not need contracts, they need covanants.
  • Understand that relationships count more than structure.

Finally, one question: Would you rather work as a part of an outstanding group or be a part of a group of outstanding individuals? This may be the key question in thinking about the premises behind participation. (29)


For many of us who work, there exists an exasperating discontinuity between how we see ourselves as persons and how we see ourselves as workers. We need to eliminate that sense of discontinuity and to restore a sense of coherence in our lives. (32)

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. (33)

These rights are essential if there is to be a new concept of work. It is not a complete list of rights, of course, but these eight are essential.

  1. The Right to be Needed.
  2. The Right to Be Involved. We need a system of input, response, and action.
  3. The Right to a Covenantal Relationship.
  4. The Right to Understand. …we need to understand our mission, our personal career path, our competition, our working environment.
  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. Is this a place where they will let me do my best?


Roving leaders are those indispensable people in our lives who are there when we need them. Roving leaders take charge, in varying degrees, in a lot of companies every day. (48)

In many organizations there are two kinds of leaders — both hierarchical leaders and roving leaders. In special situations, the hierarchical leader is obliged to identify the roving leader, then to support and follow him or her, and also to exhibit the grace that enables the roving leader to lead. (49)

Roving leadership is an issue-oriented idea. 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. (49)


Intimacy is at the heart of competence. It has to do with understanding, with believing, and with practice. (53)

Beliefs are connected to intimacy. Beliefs come before policies or standards or practices. Practice without belief is a forlorn existence. Managers who have no beliefs but only understand methodology and quantification are modern-day eunuchs. (55)

Intimacy is betrayed by the inability of our leaders to focus and provide continuity and momentum. It is betrayed by finding complexity where simplicity ought to be. (56)

We do not grow by knowing all of the answers, but rather by living with the questions. (58)

Broadly speaking, there are two types of relationships in industry. The first and most easily understood is the contractual, …[which] covers the quid pro quo of working together. (58) Three of the key elements in the art of working together are how to deal with change, how to deal with conflict, and how to reach our potential.

A society based on the letter of the law and never reaching any higher, fails to take advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes men’s noblest impulses. – Alexander Solzhenitsyn, speaking to the 1978 graduating class of Harvard College.

Covenantal relationships, on the other hand, induce freedom, not paralysis. A covenantal relationship rests on shared commitment to ideas, to issues, to values, to goals, and to management processes. Words such as love, warmth, personal chemistry are certainly pertinent. Covenantal relationships are open to influence. They fill deep needs and they enable work to have meaning and to be fulfilling. Covenantal relationships reflect unity and grace and poise. They are an expression of the sacred nature of relationships. (60)


In our effort to understand the capitalist system and its future, what should we keep in mind? We should begin with a concept of persons. (63)

First, as a Christian, I believe each person is made in the image of God. (63) Second, God has given people a great diversity of gifts. (63) Third, for reasons that we may not always understand, God has provided us a population mix. … This concept of persons within the capitalist system holds important implications for everybody — Christian or not. (64)

Therefore, we reject exclusivity. We covet inclusiveness. (66)

An inclusive system requires us to be insiders. We are interdependent, really unable to be productive by ourselves. Interdependency requires lavish communications. Lavish communications and an exclusive process are contradictory.

One can define this inclusive approach in three ways.

First, there are always certain marks of being included:

  • being needed
  • being involved
  • being cared about as an individual
  • fair wages and benefits
  • having the opportunity to do one’s best (Only leaders willing to take risks can give this opportunity.)
  • having the opportunity to understand
  • having a piece of the action — productivity gains, profit sharing, ownership appreciation, seniority bonus

Second, the inclusive approach makes me think of a corporation or business or institution as a place of fulfilled potential. … Leadership is a conidtion of indebtedness. Leaders who have an inclusive attitude think of  themselves as owing, at the very least, the following:

  • space: a gift to be what I can be
  • the opportunity to serve
  • the gift of challenge: we don’t grow unless we’re tested (constraints, like facts, are enabling friends)
  • the gift of meaning: not superfluous, but worthy; not superficial, but integral; not disposable, but permanent

Finally, here is a third way to understand and define an inclusive approach. Inclusive capitalism requires something from everyone. People must respond actively to inclusiveness. Naturally, there is a cost to belonging.

  • Being faithful is more important than being successful. If we are successful in the world’s eyes but unfaithful in terms of what we believe, then we fail in our efforts at insidership.
  • Corporations can and should have a redemptive purpose. We need to weigh the pragmatic in the clarifying light of the moral. We must understand that reaching our potential is more important than reaching our goals.
  • We need to become vulnerable to each other. We owe each other the chance to reach our potential.
  • Belonging requires us to be willing and ready to risk. Risk is like change; it’s not a choice.
  • Belonging requires intimacy. Being an insider is not a spectator sport. It means adding value. It means being fully and personally accountable. It means forgoing superficiality.
  • Last, we need to be learners together. The steady process of becoming goes on in most of us throughout our lifetime. We need to be searching for maturity, openness, and sensitivity.


Giants see opportunity where others see trouble.

Giants give others the gift of space, space in both the personal and the corporate sense, space to be what one can be.

Giants catch fastballs.

Giants have special gifts.

Giants enable others to express their own gifts.


The penalty for failing to listen is to lose one’s history, one’s historical context, one’s binding values. (82)

Herman Miller’s stock of values is an example of the continuity I’m talking about.

  • We are a research-driven product company.
  • We intend to make a contribution to society.
  • We are dedicated to quality.
  • We must become, for all who are involved, a place of realized potential. Herman Miller population must be a reflection of God’s diversity, not of our choices. We are committed to a high sense of initiative in doing everything we can to make capitalism an inclusive system of relationships, not an exclusive structure of barriers.
  • We are committed to using responsibly our environment and our finite resources.
  • We commit voluntarily our energy and talent, as well as our financial resources, to those agencies and institutions whose purpose is the common good.
  • It is essential to us that we preserve our future economically. Profit, like breathing, is indispensable.
  • We at Herman Miller acknowledge that issues of the heart and spirit matter to each of us.
  • We are deeply committed to the Scanlon idea. [TIME]

Tribal storytellers, the tribe’s elders, must insistently work at the process of corporate renewal. They must preserve and revitalize the values of the tribe. (91)


Love is an undefinalbe term, and its manifestations are both subtle and infinite. – Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership.

The capitalist system cannot avoid being better off by having more employees who act as if they own the place. (100)


The best way to communicate the basis of a corporation’s or institution’s common bods and values is through behavior. (101)

What is good communication? What does it accomplish? It is a prerequisite for teaching and learning. It is the way people can bridge the gaps. … Communication clarifies the vision. … Good communication is not simply sending and receiving. Nor is good communication simply a mechanical exchange of data. No matter how good the communication, if no one listens all is lost. The best communication forces you to listen. (102)

Among a leader’s most trusted and familiar tools are communication skills. (104)

…muddy language usually means muddy thinking… (105)

Communication performs two functions, described by two “action-prone” words: educate and liberate.

A corporation’s values are its life’s blood. 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. (108)


“What is one of the most difficult things that you personally need to work on?” “The interception of entropy.” (110)

…leaders need to learn to recognize the signals of impending deterioration.

  • 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 as 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 million 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


Leaders, in a special way, are liable for what happens in the future, rather than what is happening day to day. (114)

…it just is not possible for everybody to know everything and understand everything. The following is essential: We must trust one another to be accountable for our own assignments. When that kind of trust is present, it is a beautifully liberating thing. (116)

Mahatma Gandhi once wrote that there were seven sins in the world:

  1. wealth without work
  2. pleasure without conscience
  3. knowledge without character
  4. commerce without morality
  5. science without humanity
  6. worship without sacrifice
  7. politics without principle


Facilities can aspire to certain qualities as an expression of a civilization. (124)

Facilities should enable and empower people to do their best. (125)

We should make it our goal to create an environment that

  • encourages an open community and fortuitous encounter
  • welcomes all
  • is kind to the user
  • changes with grace
  • is person-scaled
  • is subservient to human activity
  • forgives mistakes in planning
  • enables this community (in the sense that an environment can) to reach continually toward its potential
  • is a contribution to the landscape as an aesthetic and human value
  • meets the needs we can perceive
  • is open to surprise
  • is comfortable with conflict
  • has flexibility, is non-precious and nonmonumental


A future leader

  • has consistent and dependable integrity
  • cherishes heterogeneity and diversity
  • searches out competence
  • is open to contrary opinion
  • communicates easily at all levels
  • understands the concept of equity and consistently advocates it
  • leads through serving
  • is vulnerable to the skills and talents of others
  • is intimate with the organization and its work
  • is able to see the broad picture (beyond his own area of focus)
  • is a spokesperson and diplomat
  • can be a tribal storyteller (an important way of transmitting our corporate culture)
  • tells why rather than how

Further observations

  • The only kind of leadership worth following is based on vision.
  • Personal character must be uppermost.
  • If we are going to ask a person to lead, can we determine ahead of time whether he or she has gaps between belief and practice, between work and family?
  • 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.
  • When choosing officers, provide for possible failure and a graceful withdrawal. Promotion to officership should be decided in a group, with no slim majority. The process should include complete commitment and no reservations. After all, the way we move managers around, you may inherit a work team that you cannot, or will not want to lead.
  • What does the company physician say about the candidate?
  • What do the person’s peers have to say?
  • Would you seek out this person as a key resource on an important task force?


Anyone in touch with reality in this world knows there are lots of reasons to weep. (135)

What do we weep over? What should we weep over?

  • superficiality
  • a lack of dignity
  • injustice, the flaws that prevents equity
  • great news!
  • tenderness
  • a word of thanks
  • separation
  • arrogance
  • betrayal of ideas, of principles, of quality
  • jargon, because it confuses rather than clarifies
  • looking at customers as interruptions
  • leaders who watch bottom lines without watching behavior
  • the inability of folks to tell the difference between heroes and celebrities
  • confusing pleasure with meaning
  • leaders who never say “Thank you
    having to work in a job where you are not free to do your best
  • good people trying to follow leaders who depend on politics and hierarchy rather than on trust and competence
  • people who are gifts to the spirit


A friend of mine described a colleague as great at running the “ninety-five-yard dash.” …serious runners think of it as a 110-yard-dash so that no one will beat you in the last few yards. That completes this idea nicely. Think beyond the whole. (143)

Elegant leaders always reach for completeness What are some of the marks of elegance? What should leaders be searching for in their efforts to liberate people of high potential?

A complete relationship needs a covenant. (144)

Intelligence and education can ascertain the facts. Wisdom can discover the truth. The life of a corporation needs both. (144)

To give one’s time doesn’t always mean giving one’s involvement. (144)

Hierarchy and equality are not mutually exclusive. Hierarchy provides connections. Equality makes hierarchy responsive and responsible. (145)

Without forgiveness there can be no real freedom to act within a group. (145)

Opportunity must always be connected to accountability. (145)

A whale is as unique as a cactus. But don’t ask a whale to survive Death Valley. We all have special gifts. Where we use them and how determines whether we actually complete something. (145)

Goals and rewards are only parts, 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. Joy is an essential ingredient of leadership. Leaders are obligated to provide it. (145-6)