Many people believe that at its heart, leadership is primarily about getting other people to do what you want them to do. They think leaders tend to see people as tools—objects that are a means to an end, interchangeable, and expendable.
While this is one way to lead, the cost is very high. It leads to:
- Exhausted and miserable leaders
- Cynicism and frustration throughout your organization
- Lack of sustainability – success is measured in financial quarters instead of decades
- No lasting impact – if the company disappears, no one misses it or mourns its departure (some might even dance on its grave)
Leaders within this type of organization are preoccupied with activities like directing, pushing, enforcing, disciplining (sticks), incentivizing (carrots), etc.
Max De Pree, the CEO of Herman Miller from 1980 to 1986, laid out a different vision of leadership. In his book Leadership is an Art he paints a picture of an organization in which the individuals and the corporate group as a whole thrive. As the book explains, De Pree’s entire worldview sprouted from his deeply held and carefully considered Christian beliefs. If, as Christians believe, each individual is created in the image of God, then each individual is to be engaged with and respected, not exploited or coerced.
While contractual relationships have a place in an organization, De Pree valued what he called “covenantal relationships.” A covenantal relationship goes beyond rules and policies and requires the leader and follower to have faith in each other, rely on each other, relinquish control to the other in various situations, and even love one another. Love? An unusual word in the halls of business, some might say. But Herman Miller was never an ordinary company.
Instead of seeing humans as containers of energy and skills to be harnessed like a team of horses, De Pree saw each unique individual as a plant in a garden to be nourished and protected, so that it could grow to its full potential. Only then could the organization as a whole reach its potential. The primary responsibility of the leader was to create an environment in which people could learn, grow, and flourish.
Here are a few examples to illustrate the environment De Pree cultivated at Herman Miller:
- Employees were freed from their fears of speaking up or making mistakes.
- Whichever employee within the organization was best equipped to understand a problem had the authority to solve it (and was financially rewarded for doing so.)
- Artistic and creative people were not only valued, but were given tremendous freedom to explore their ideas and concepts.
- Managers could incur short-term losses in order to achieve long-term results.
- Anyone who worked for more than a year received Herman Miller stock and became an owner.
- How an employee did something was important as what he accomplished.
If you read Leadership is an Art, you may think that De Pree is just writing pretty words and that in the “real world” or in tough economic times his leadership philosophy is bull$@%#. But I worked at Herman Miller in the 80’s and I can tell you that De Pree actually believed what he said. He put those beliefs into practice. What is more, those practices created an environment that generated furniture that sits in modern art museums all over the world. I can also attest to the number of lives (mine included) that were changed for the better and given meaning by working at, of all things, a furniture factory!