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Reflections | Dr. Leighton Ford (Mentoring)

A Tribute to Max De Pree (Dr. Nathan Hatch)

October 27, 2017

A note from Leighton followed by a tribute from Dr. Nathan Hatch of Wake Forest University:

I met Max DePree when he was chair of the search committee for a seminary president some years ago, and I was asked to serve as an “outside” member of the committee.

What I contributed was very minor. What I learned from watching this wise man lead and chair was major!

I commend to you his books Leadership is an Art, and Leadership Jazz
Most of us are privileged in life to meet a few people who lift our spirit, capture our imagination, and inspire us to become better at what we do and who we are. It is hard to say exactly how exactly they convey this gift, this charisma, but they do and for that we give thanks.

Max DePree was one of those beacons for me. I got to know him just at the time I was making the transition from active teacher and scholar to actual leadership as dean, then, Vice President, then Provost at Notre Dame. I was privileged to get to know Max, and to read his writings at the same time. I talked to Max about Fuller, and, as I joined the Fuller Board, came to experience one of his magnificent legacies in the health and dynamism of this body. I heard him give a seminar on not-for-profit boards to the trustees of Wheaton and I invited him to lead a retreat for leaders at Notre Dame. I took council with him in a time of personal stress and confusion; and found him wise and grace-filled. His advice, in person and imprint, shaped my thinking in powerful ways.

A number of lines from Max remain etched in my mind:
“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”
“Leaders don’t inflict pain, they bear pain.”
“Leaders owe a covenant to a corporation or institution.”
“Have we stopped hiring people better than ourselves?”
“Do we have a nose for stale air?”
“When was the last time I called to say thank you.”?
“Leadership is an art, a belief, a condition of the heart more than a set of things to do”

Why was Max’s vision of leadership so powerful? One reason was that there was such congruence between what he said and wrote and how he lived. T. S. Eliot’s once said of Charles Williams: “Some men are less than their works, some are more. Charles Williams cannot be placed in either class.[ He was] the same man in his life and in his writings.” Max was the same in his life and his writings.

In the introduction his recently published book of sermons, As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” Eugene Petersen writes: “ The Christian life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence—congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it, congruence between what is written in Scripture and our living out what is written.” The congruence of Max DePree’s life commands our attention.

Max’s life and advice were also compelling because he envisioned leadership as an art. Talking about it was not in rules and dictums. Preparation for leadership, he wrote, does not come from books. What he offered was elusive hints and suggestions, colorful illustrations, provocative questions and powerful metaphors.

“Why isn’t a college like a symphony of Beethoven?”

“Success is fragile, like a butterfly. We usually crush the life out of it in our efforts to possess it.”

“Leaders and followers are all parts of a circle.”

“In a way, leadership is as delicate as Mozart’s melodies. The music exists and it doesn’t. It is written on the page, but it means nothing until performed and heard. Much of its effect depends on the performer and the listener. The best leaders, like the best music, inspire us to see new possibilities.”

A metaphor does something that the precision of a definition or an explanation doesn’t do: it insists we join the speaker and participate in the creation of fresh meaning. Metaphor activates our imagination.

Max Depree didn’t announce to us how to be a leader. He invited us to explore creatively the difficult and elusive calling of leadership: to build up people and organizations, which he saw as living and organic. Such a task was sacred because it involved the lives of invaluable human beings—“the sacred nature of personal dignity”– and was responsible to build around them institutions that could be havens. “A good family, a good institution, or a good corporation can be a place of healing.” He invites us into this task and expands our thinking about what it will entail. Max sought to infuse human organizations with life and vitality. And that was more like the work of artist or musician than that of a task-oriented or bottom-line manager.

I have suggested that Max was compelling because of the congruence of his life and message and because of his invitation that leaders take up their positions like an artist, with all the sensitivity, creativity, caution and solemnity that befits a holy calling.

A third, and related, reason that Max’s own leadership was so compelling has powerful relevance to our own day. How does someone with firm Christian belief go into the marketplace and lead organizations in all their complexity and diversity. In our own time, orthodox Christians have been much better building their own churches, schools, and not-for-profits than they have in infusing secular organizations, public and private, with salt and light. We are often better at retreating or combatting than in participating.

Max was called to lead a company, once family owned, that in his time became a public company. This drew him naturally into the role of breaking down sacred/secular distinctions. He came to model how a Christian leader speaks, acts, and leads in a secular organization. His deft approach eschewed any easy answer such as bringing a chaplain into the workplace. He was more concerned with the organic culture of the whole organization; and whether it operated in ways that allowed full human flourishing.

The principles that infuse Max’s writings—the responsibility of leaders to followers, the covenants and promises that leaders should show employees, the call to equity, fairness, and non-discrimination, the challenge of giving all people the freedom to expand their knowledge and creativity—these principles are an excellent primer for how to operate in the world with conviction and authenticity. These principles also point to how business can be a worthy calling, one that allows people and communities to flourish.

Max’s winsome approach had appeal far beyond the walls of the church. He demonstrates that the gospel is anything but narrow and crabbed. When graciously applied to human organizations of all kinds, the leaven of faith can bring life and wholeness to the core institutions of our society.

I am grateful that Max sees such promise in all human organizations, businesses, governments, not-for profit agencies, colleges and seminaries. His life and message call us, not to retreat wholesale from the world, however post-Christian it has become. Instead, we are to engage it with humility, longsuffering and patience, and with courage and hope. Max DePree wrote about his own experience at Herman Miller, taking everyone seriously, treating each person with dignity and respect. And he worked to mold Herman Miller into a humane organization. He also challenged not-for-profit organizations like Fuller Seminary to make music like Mozart or Beethoven. What a splendid calling. And what a powerful legacy.

Dr. Nathan Hatch

President, Wake Forest University

Photo cred: Modern Servant Leadership

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