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Winter 2004 | Volume 26, Number 5 | Features
The Case For Good Business

Max De Pree Challenged a Generation to Lead With Vision and Integrity

After a while, the headlines all look the same: some of the country’s most visible business entities — from Enron to the New York Stock Exchange to Martha Stewart — charged with unethical, even criminal activity.

“In Genesis, we’re told that man was made in God’s image,” says De Pree, who lives for part of the year in Phoenix. “For a Christian leader, if everybody with whom she works is made in God’s image, that carries tremendous implications.”

It’s no wonder that public confidence in corporate ethics is arguably at an all-time low. But lest you think business has become synonymous with scandal, Christian business leader Max De Pree has another story to tell.

The chairman emeritus of Herman Miller Inc., one of the world’s largest manufacturers of office furniture, Max De Pree dedicated his career to leading a Fortune 500 company with passion and integrity. After his retirement in 1987 as president and CEO, he was elected to Fortune’s Business Hall of Fame and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Business Enterprise Trust. He has also written five books, including best-sellers Leadership Jazz and Leadership Is an Art, which earned accolades from the likes of Time, The Christian Science Monitor, Tom Peters, Peter Drucker and Bill Clinton. When De Pree makes the case for good business, people listen.

As someone with such a wide-ranging view of business, De Pree is not surprised by the scandals that continue to rock the corporate world. But to pronounce that business has gone bad? He tells Response that’s taking things too far: “This is not solely a business problem. This is American society today. If you follow baseball, you see the ongoing Pete Rose scandal and the absolutely foolish way in which he has responded to his own lying. And you see this in people in the entertainment world, in education and in government.”

What’s more, he points out, the story of good business is one you won’t often find at the newsstand. As a consequence, few hear about companies who value people as well as profits; CEOs who risk their jobs to do the right thing; managers who don’t step on others to climb to the top; or businesses who donate time, expertise and money to the community. “

Take the pharmaceutical company Merck, for example,” says De Pree. “They developed a solution to the problem of river blindness in Africa. The people who had river blindness couldn’t afford the medicine, so they gave it to them. You see, BusinessWeek could care less about a good story like that, and there’s an awful lot of that kind of thing that goes on in business.”

Though a company that makes office furniture doesn’t cure diseases, it can improve the lives of people who use its products. Famed for design elegance and innovation, Herman Miller invented among other things the modular workstation, which ultimately changed the American office landscape from desks lined up in one big room to private office spaces for workers.

De Pree’s Herman Miller was not only innovative and responsive to the market, but also highly productive and profitable. Most distinctive, however, was the emphasis the company placed on people-centered systems and corporate integrity. During De Pree’s 40-year tenure, Herman Miller embodied a groundbreaking management style — a participatory model where managers and employees worked side-by-side to achieve the best results.

The art of leadership, De Pree wrote, is “liberating people to do what is required of them in the most effective and humane way possible.” This simple yet revolutionary principle propelled Herman Miller’s phenomenal success. As a consequence, almost every study on leadership written in the 1990s cited De Pree.

“Max is certainly the only CEO of a major organization to make an original contribution to the study of leadership,” says Professor James O’Toole of the University of Southern California’s Center for Effective Organizations. Author of the foreword to Leadership Is an Art, O’Toole says, “There have been hundreds of books written by executives about leadership, but Max’s are the ones that stand out as unique and lasting. Max is a true original — and he practiced what he preached.”

Though his books were written for a general audience, De Pree makes no secret of the fact that the principles he championed — character, integrity, relationships, teamwork, service, mentoring, respect — come out of his Christian faith. “In Genesis, we’re told that man was made in God’s image,” says De Pree. “For a Christian leader, if everybody with whom she works is made in God’s image, that carries tremendous implications.

“There’s a place in Scripture that says God has planted eternity in man’s heart. Well, if eternity is planted in your heart as a Christian leader — whether it’s in business, sports or academia — you have to figure out, what does that mean for the way in which I behave in relation to other people made in God’s image?”

For De Pree, it means that three principles should drive the work of Christian business leaders: “They need to establish moral purpose in their organizations, build community, and develop and nurture relationships. Because, you see, these all arise out of scriptural direction.”

Where does making money fit in a scriptural view of business leadership? “Most businesses are started in order to meet an unmet need,” says De Pree. “What an entrepreneur hopes for is that there is going to be enough of a market to keep him and his family alive. People start businesses to serve others.”

Most businesspeople, he says, have a complex view of their role in society. They serve on school boards and other community organizations, and they encourage their employees to do so. They make “giving back” to the community a company value.

The ethical problems associated with profits lie in two areas, De Pree suggests. “One is the failure to have equitable distribution of results, which is unscriptural. For instance, I think there ought to be a relationship between what a CEO gets and what workers get.”

The second problem is a lack of personal restraint exercised by those in power. “If you look in the book of Amos, you’ll find that one of the jobs of a leader is to care first for the people at the bottom of the ladder,” says De Pree. “So I don’t see an ethical problem with profit per se, but I see serious ethical problems with the way in which profits are distributed. The primary function of profit is to fund the future of the company.”

With De Pree at the helm, Herman Miller formed a profitsharing program that allowed employees the opportunity to purchase stock in the company. These were really “Silver Parachutes,” because in the case of an unfriendly takeover, employees had to be bought out. This practice stands in sharp contrast to the notion of “Golden Parachutes” — huge severance packages — negotiated by many of the country’s top executives for themselves.

An equitable distribution of resources also means reaching out to surrounding communities and cultivating a diverse workplace, says De Pree. “For a long time, people thought that the way to deal with diversity in business was to have a few African-Americans present. Well, being present has nothing to do with being included or having equal opportunity. Leaders have to work very hard and very intelligently to make these things happen.”

In the De Pree philosophy, the practitioner of good business leadership is also a cultivator of new leaders. De Pree challenged an entire generation of CEOs to lead with vision and integrity, and he continues to invest in the future of American business. Now 79 years old, he has taught at the college level; serves on the board of trustees of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California; and is a member of the advisory board of the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management.

Others are drawing on the principles De Pree applied at Herman Miller to challenge up-and-coming leaders. “Max De Pree has been my mentor for 22 years,” says Walter Wright, executive director of the De Pree Leadership Center in Pasadena. “The Center was started by a businessman who wanted more Max De Prees in the world, to create more leaders who focus on integrity, character and theology. We try to encourage leaders to reflect on who they are and what kind of legacy they’ll leave. Leaders, as Max would say, are really teachers of values.”

For Seattle Pacific University, the training of future business leaders is key, says De Pree. “To succeed, you’ve got to be very up-to-date on the technology side of business. Second, you have a responsibility to instruct students in the fact that you can’t reach your potential technologically until you reach your potential relationally — there is such a thing as relational leadership. The third area, I believe, for SPU, is that you have to teach character, and that really means basing a lot of the instruction in Scripture.”

It’s a message that rings true with Seattle Pacific President Philip Eaton, who considers De Pree a friend and mentor. “Our work in SPU’s School of Business is to teach good business, which is always based on principles of Scripture, and to graduate leaders whose competence and character will change American business culture. Max De Pree has demonstrated that the combination of excellence and integrity can indeed change the world.”

De Pree’s legacy of good business persists: His books are instrumental in the teaching of leadership and business ethics; thousands of people emulate his approach to management; and Herman Miller’s innovations reside not only in offices worldwide, but also in permanent collections at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Louvre’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs.

De Pree recently spoke on the topic of ethics to an adult Sunday school class in his hometown of Holland, Michigan. “It isn’t a matter of knowing ethical principles,” he told them. “It’s a matter of working out how you’re going to live in a secular world based on what God tells you. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. How are you going to do that?”


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