One of the great privileges of working at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership is meeting with executives and business professionals who are working out—in the nitty-gritty of their everyday responsibilities—what it looks like to practice leadership with an awareness of the life- and world-changing reality that Christ is risen.
In the weeks just before Easter, these conversations included a breakfast in Menlo Park, California, where we talked about what it means to integrate faith and work in the Bay Area, how various churches and ministries serve leaders through the vocational discipleship they offer, how different people give expression to their faith in their leadership, and what gaps might be most strategic to fill in the gospel ecosystem of this globally influential urban area.
A restaurant at the Lincoln Center in New York City was the setting for another of these conversations, this time around late-night drinks with alumni of the Gotham Fellows program of that city’s Center for Faith and Work. This intense and wonderfully formative program allows a cohort of professionals averaging about 30 years in age an opportunity every year to acquire a more robust theology, deepen their personal spirituality, explore the implications of faith for their everyday work, and orient themselves to a lifetime of contributing to cultural renewal in their industries and their city.
These conversations ultimately address the question of how the gospel impacts our lives to the fullest extent. What does that look like? How do we, as believers, embody the gospel message, both personally and professionally? And what forms does it take in the often nitty-gritty world of work?
In answering such questions, it seems our imaginations often become limited when we imagine what it might mean to practice leadership in our workplaces as people who follow Jesus. It is tempting to view certain outward practices as a sign of spiritual vitality. We might see our positions of authority as giving us a privileged platform from which to evangelize the employees in our businesses, but fail to reflect adequately on how we might witness to God’s love authentically without inappropriately constraining the consciences of those who rely on our goodwill for their livelihoods. We might enjoy the freedom of inviting our colleagues to join us for shared prayer in the dawn hours before the start of work, or over a lunch break, but be tone deaf to the possibilities of dissonance between our spoken prayers and our actions as managers.
We are not arguing against a generous honesty with our colleagues about our deepest loves and dearest beliefs, nor are we arguing against prayer at work; whenever he can Gideon joins with colleagues at Fuller Seminary on Tuesday mornings to pray through the Psalms, and the shared sorrow and gratitude, delight, and supplication in these early mornings add significantly to his awareness of who we are as human beings, living our lives in dependence on God. But the institution of workplace prayer is an inadequate measure of our leadership, of the outworking of our faith, and even of ourselves. It is not a substitute for living out the fullness of the gospel in our personal and work lives.
An embodied gospel demands more: it involves love, kindness, justice mixed with mercy, forgiveness, humility, and the recognition that the people we employ are, like ourselves, created in the image of God, and they desire to live meaningful lives. It involves stewardship not only of financial assets but also of the people who have chosen to follow.
As Max De Pree writes in his bestselling classic Leadership Is an Art:
But what else do leaders owe? What are artful leaders responsible for? Surely we need to include people. People are the heart and spirit of all that counts. Without people, there is no need for leaders. Leaders can decide to be primarily concerned with leaving assets to their institutional heirs or they can go beyond that and capitalize on the opportunity to leave a legacy, a legacy that takes into account the more difficult, qualitative side of life, one which provides greater meaning, more challenge, and more joy in the lives of those whom leaders enable.
“The goal of thinking hard about leadership is not to produce great or charismatic or well-known leaders. 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?”
Max De Pree, Longtime Fuller Trustee
Max De Pree is an influential former Fuller board member and was a close personal friend and mentoree of David Allan Hubbard. De Pree is a well-known businessman and former CEO of Herman Miller Corporation. During his tenure, Herman Miller became one of the most profitable Fortune 500 companies. De Pree is most proud of the manner in which his beliefs were incorporated into the organizational culture. The result of his body of work earned him a place in Fortune magazine’s National Business Hall of Fame. De Pree is the author of the best-selling books Leadership Is an Art and Leadership Jazz. In 2005, after 40 years of service, he retired from Fuller’s Board of Trustees, but his legacy is continued by the Max De Pree Center for Leadership.
Max speaks with authority from his experience. In the 1980s he was CEO and chairman of Herman Miller, the highly productive, innovative, and profitable Michigan-based furniture company, which has been regularly included since 1986 among the top 20 in Fortune magazine’s annual list of the 500 most admired companies. Herman Miller’s organizational culture embodied a deeply theological understanding of the people who worked there and created policies and an environment that brought out their best as they produced top-notch, cutting-edge furniture products.
It is easy to look in the wrong places and at the wrong things when we evaluate our own leadership and that of others. It is easy to mistake charisma or popularity for true leadership, or to overestimate the significance of fleeting success in delivering results valued by some of our constituencies or by some external observers. Financial results are essential, but so are “people” results, Max asserts. “The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers. Are the followers reaching their potential? Are they learning? Serving?”
These are the kinds of questions that we at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership are called to raise. Our task is to build relationships with entrepreneurs and investors in the Bay Area and elsewhere, so that we can encourage them to think about the ways in which they are setting the direction for the culture of the startups they are funding, founding, and leading. Our task is to do research that will help us develop resources by means of which churches and ministries from New York to San Francisco, from Nairobi to Beijing, can encourage the marketplace leaders in their midst to be alert to what they owe as leaders.
The measure of a leader is seen in the results they make possible in the lives of those with whom they work, and in the results of their efforts for their neighbors near and far.
“We need to give each other the space to grow, to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity,” writes Max. “We need to give each other space so that we may both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing, and inclusion. And in giving each other the gift of space, we need also to offer the gifts of grace and beauty to which each of us is entitled.”
As we go about our work, it is wonderful to discover bankers and restaurateurs, software developers and furniture manufacturers, architects and academics, who through their leadership give their followers this kind of space, who open up these kinds of possibilities—leaders who measure up to what most intrinsically matters in the workplace.
Gideon Strauss is Executive Director and Catherine Beaton is Creative Director of the Max De Pree Leadership Center for Leadership.