Leadership Lessons from a Design Thinking Pioneer

Max DePreeThe former CEO of Herman Miller, Max DePree said, “I’ve got so many MBAs, but what I need is a poet. Poets are the original systems thinkers.”

This poetic mode is the critical perspective for a human-factor and design business – and Herman Miller is the most apt precursor in the design thinking revolution, so they knew the value of this holistic, poetic lens where anything can be better designed to better suit real people.

Even DePree’s little instructional manual on running a successful business made a statement, as it was titled “Leadership Is An Art.” Not a science, mind you, but leadership as an art. This book has sold more than 800,000 copies despite the mad rush that seeks to turn business into a science (look no further than a degree in Management Science for proof of this statement).

DePree was a design thinking pioneer and also the archetype of the type of leader who will successfully run the businesses of the coming era, the human-to-human age of commerce.

At the time of the book’s release, the title would have been added to a shelf with many titles about the science of business. True to his vision, DePree followed up with “Leadership Jazz,” furthering the intuitive, way-finding, and non-linear approach to designing an entire organization. Design was at the heart of his entire world-view, and it propelled Herman Miller into an inspired phase of growth in the market.

Empathy and cooperation were foremost traits in this style of organization. DePree cultivated an “inclusive corporation,” where all voices could be heard.

He also looked at the entire corporate culture as if it were a human and gave it human virtues. To his credit, he saw no oppositions to celebrating business success while crafting a “caring organization.”

Much of DePree’s success stemmed from instituting empathy and communication as strands of organizational DNA of Herman Miller. He actively encouraged open communication and noted that all should “err on the side of over-communication.”

Lastly, the art of leadership, for DePree, was poetic. The opening lines of his famous little book proclaim, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you.”

Defining reality is the great commission, the heroic charge and the real test of authentic leadership. Leaders must filter so many worlds at once – society, trends, the market, adjacent markets, competitors, company culture, debts and investment, short- and long-term plans. To be able to define a reality for an entity is to give it license to live up to its full potential, to provide the groundwork for the organization to thrive.

Saying thank you means enduring the rigors of running a business and emerging with a tangible and contagious spirit of gratitude for the people, processes and circumstances that merge to make it happen. Saying thank you also means that you are flexible enough to learn from mistakes as they arise instead of thinking of them as failures.

Thank you, Max DePree, for defining a potent and beneficial reality of leadership for the next generation.

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Michael GraberMichael Graber is the co-founder and managing partner at Southern Growth Studio, a Memphis, Tennessee-based firm that specializes in growth strategy and innovation. A published poet and musician, Graber is the creative force that complements the analytical side of the house. He speaks and publishes frequently on best practices in design thinking, business strategy, and innovation and earned an MFA from the University of Memphis. Follow Michael @SouthernGrowth

Michael Graber




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