Tribute to a great leader: Max DePree

Leadership is much more an art, a belief, a condition of the heart, than a set of things to do.  The visible signs of artful leadership are expressed, ultimately, in its practice.  ~Max DePree

This week we lost a great example of leadership. Max DePree was 92. Through his personal example and insightful writing, he influenced millions of people regarding how we do leadership.

Upon learning of Max’s death, the first thing that came to mind was this example of his influence written by a university president back in 2000. He wrote this about Max.

Several years ago Max DePree came to speak to our university trustees. Max, as most of you know, is a successful businessman and a prominent and wise voice on leadership. The day after Max and Esther left, we received a call from the hotel manager where they had stayed. This manager was amazed. He said that Mr. DePree had made a huge impact on his staff. Everyone was talking about his kindness, about the generosity of his spirit. This manager thanked me for sending this guest. His staff would never be the same, he said.

I want to learn better how to carry myself with the posture of Max DePree. Can we do this for each other, so that we experience the joy of love among us, but most of all can we do it to model grace and love for the world that desperately seeks a way out of its mean-spiritedness, its alienation, its viciousness?

This is probably not a comfortable question for any of us to answer, but when was the last time we stayed in a hotel and made such an impression that the manager had to call and thank someone for sending us to their hotel? Well for me, never.

How we live our lives, day in and day out, is a visible expression of the condition of our heart. Max simply stayed at a hotel. He wasn’t hired to provide leadership coaching or consulting, he wasn’t sought out to give an inspiring speech to the hotel staff. He just went about his ordinary routine, one that happened to be expressed through uncommon kindness, grace, and generosity of spirit.

Sam Adeyemi said, “Whatever people SEE and HEAR consistently over time will enter their hearts and put their lives on autopilot.”  What people saw and heard from Max DePree was kindness, grace, and generosity of spirit. And it entered their hearts.

Now more than ever, all leaders need to pause and ask, what do people see and hear consistently from me? What is entering their hearts?

Max DePree leaves a legacy and an example that will stretch nearly all of us to a higher form of leadership. Remembering Max’s words: “The visible signs of artful leadership are expressed, ultimately, in its practice. Leadership is a condition of the heart.”