Leadership is an Art

A look at the book by Max DePree.. Len Hjalmarson

DePree CoverI've been reading this little book for the last course in my second year at ACTS. It's quite good, and I want to share some of the pieces that have struck me so far.

The third chapter in Max DePree's little book is titled "Participative Premises." Max believes and practices that the most effective leadership process is participative. He notes that participative management rises out of the heart and from a personal philosophy about people. That in itself is a useful insight. This isn't a method that can effectively be imposed on a system as another managerial tool. He writes that, "Participative management guarantees that decisions will not be arbitrary, secret, or closed to questioning." Then comes the clincher.More...

"Effective influencing and understanding spring largely from healthy relationships among the members of the group. Leaders need to foster environments and work processes within which people can develop high-quality relationships -- relationships with each other, relationships with the group with which we work, relationships with our clients and customers."

How does one do this? Max proposes five components (and I translate):

  • * Respect people
  • * Know your worldview and your filters
  • * Agree on the rights of work
  • * Understand the respective role of contractual agreements and covenants
  • * Understand that relationships are more important than structure (25)

One could probably write a book based on these five points, but I want to take on the last two. He continues,

"Contractual relationships cover such things as expectations, objectives, compensation, working conditions, benefits, incentives, constraints, timetables etc. These all need to be in place.

"But more is needed -- particularly today when the majority of us who work can properly be classified as volunteers. The best people working for organizations are like folunteers. Since they could probably find good jobs in any number of groups, they choose to work somewhere for reasons less tangible than salary or position. Volunteers do not need contracts, they need covenants.

"Covenantal relationships enable corporations and institutions to be hospitable to the unusual person and to unusual ideas. Covenantal relationships enable participation to be practiced and inclusive groups to be formed. (28)

Max describes the heart of the difference between covenants and contracts as intimacy (that was a bit of a shock for me also). He describes intimacy as the experience of "ownership," and by this he appears to mean the personal investment that moves work from a job to vocation.. and even a personal form of art. This kind of relationship results in authenticity, and it is rooted in passion. Max writes,

"We don't come with our companies.. they come with us. Our companies can never be anything we don't want to be... We find intimacy through a search for comfort with ambiguity.. by living the questions. (58)

"The contractual relationship covers the quid pro quo of working together... but more is needed. Working together [involves] dealing with change, dealing with conflict.. and reaching our potential. A legal contract breaks down with conflict and change and has nothing to do with .. potential.

"A covenantal relationship induces freedom and rests on shared commitment... they enable work to have meaning. Covenantal relationships reflect unity and grace and poise; they tolerate risk and forgive mistakes."

The next chapter is titled "Whither Capitalism?" Max defines his own approach as "inclusive." He writes that "people must respond actively" and "there is a cost to belonging." These points follow:

  • * being faithful is more important than being successful
  • * corporations can and should have a redemptive purpose
  • * we need to become vulnerable to each other
  • * belonging requires us to become willing and ready to risk
  • * belonging requires intimacy... it means adding value and being personally accountable
  • * we need to be learners together

Part Two

At the close of the fourth chapter in Max DePree's little book, he lists eight essential rights for workers. The list is a good one, but I was particularly intrigued by number 8: "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 or hindered?" (42) That is a powerful question, and it hints that effective organizations are as much about spirit as about the bottom line.More...

The following chapter is titled "roving leadership." Max has his own way of describing the presence and function of non-designated leaders.

He opens with a story. It was an Easter Sunday morning, and as the organist hit her first chord a middle aged man in the center of the church turned grey, rose from his seat, stopped breathing and toppled over his daughter sitting next to him. The pastors, choir, and organist didn't respond. In less than three seconds, a young man with training as a paramedic was at the man's side. Six others carried the man to an open space at the back of the church. Two children fainted. Two doctors in the congregation responded. Another man thrust his head among the group and asked, "Will you need oxygen?" and then provided a bottle and mask. Someone else approached the man's wife and guided her from the choir to his side.

The church that Max describes had more than thirty appointed and elected professionals. None of them responded swiftly as the incident unfolded. Max writes,

"It is difficult for a hierarchy to allow subordinates to break custom and be leaders. The people who did respond quickly and effectively are roving leaders. Roving leaders are .. there when we need them. Roving leaders take charge, in varying degrees, in many companies every day.

"More than simple initiative, roving leadership is a key element int he day-to-day expression of a participative process. 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 [particularly when we are paid for our area of expertise]. It means.. allowing others to share ownership of the problem. Roving leadership demands that we be enablers of one another. It requires.. trust and a clear sense of interdependence. It also demands.. discipline [because] we want freedom and not license." (50)

Part Three

Max talks a lot about "ownership." That could sound like a purely economic term, but what he is really talking about is the commitment that comes from participation and personal investment. DePree's company is founded on the Scanlon plan, where stock sharing is a matter of course. The result of ownership is a continuing rise in the level of individual literacy: business literacy, participative literacy, ownership literacy, competitive literacy. Owners who are personally invested are motivated to understand and to continually grow in their knowledge of the business and its context. "Ownership demands a commitment to be as informed about the whole as one can be." (100)

I wonder if our over-reliance on professional story tellers has done more damage than we know. Not only has it worked against the kind of participation that would enliven our personal sense of ownership of our communities and the purposes they serve, it has killed our commitment to understand and participate in the ongoing formation of our shared identity: who we are and who we are becoming. ANd then we wonder why so few are motivated to "do theology".. to learn and reflect and become a hermeneutical community.

In the second from last chapter DePree takes on the interception of entropy. He lists some of the signs that an organization is deteriorating. (111)

  • * 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 identical
  • * when people stop telling tribal stories or can't understand them
  • * a recurring effort by some to convince others that things are really simple (inability to deal with complexity or ambiguity)
  • * when day to day pressures push aside concerns for vision and risk
  • * manuals
  • * a growing to quantify both history and one's thoughts about the future
  • * the urge to establish ratios
  • * leaders who rely on structure rather than people

Toward the end of the chapter Max quotes Mahatma Gandhi, who listed seven sins:

  • * wealth without work
  • * pleasure without conscience
  • * knowledge without character
  • * commerce without morality
  • * science without humanity
  • * worship without sacrifice
  • * politics without principle

I haven't exactly reviewed this little book over the past few days, but I do want to say.. this is an unusual book on leadership! Toward the end Max shares some of the things leaders should weep about, both joys and sorrows. Max believes leaders should always be vulnerable people. Then he shares some thoughts about architecture. What makes a good building? How do our facilities reflect who we are and who we are becoming?

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• © 2005-2007 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated in April, 2007