Leaders Don’t Inflict Pain; They Bear Pain

Tom Peters

Time for your annual evaluation. The boss (long-time chairman of a Fortune 500 concern) asks you, a vice president, to prepare for the meeting by answering several questions. Samples: "What should grace enable us to be?" "What are three signals of impending entropy you see at (our company)?" and "What do we weep over? What should we weep over?"

Huh? Suppose I told you that the same boss preaches heresies like these: "Leaders don't inflict pain; they bear pain," and "Leadership is a concept of owing certain things to the institution."

Max DePree, chairman of furniture maker Herman Miller (1987 revenue: $574 million), is the author of these strange-sounding statements, which are included in his book, Leadership Is An Art, from the Michigan State University Press. If you're fed up or bored silly with the egocentric blather that passes as best-selling CEO autobiographies/management primers—e.g., Iacocca, Trump—DePree's book is just the antidote.

Most executives, and managers at all levels for that matter, give lip service to the idea that "people are our most important assets." For example, how many times have you read such statement on page one of the annual report (and then never again seen a reference to people, in the ensuing 60 pages of charts, tables, numbers, and accounting footnotes)?

From the start, DePree reveals his compulsion for putting people first. He doesn't, like most others, tiptoe around some of business's most verboten words—spirit, trust, love, grace, warmth, and intimacy.

Respect for diversity is where it begins, "... it is fundamental that leaders endorse a concept of persons. This begins with an understanding of people's gifts and talents and skills ... Recognizing diversity helps us to understand the need we have for opportunity, equity, and identity in the work place." The company must, he adds, "be hospitable to the unusual person and to unusual ideas."

With a "concept of persons" which emphasizes diversity as the driving force, DePree ups the ante, contending that achievement of everyone's maximum potential is essential to effective leadership. We should think of workers as "volunteers," who should ask ceaselessly (and demand of their leaders), "Is this a place where [people] will let me do my best?"

Leaders, in such a context, are servants. (He speaks admiringly of a book that I recommend as well, Servant Leadership, by Robert Greenleaf, a former AT&T executive. They "owe the organization a new reference point for what caring, purposeful, committed people can be ... Notice I did not say what people can do—what we can do is merely a consequence of what we can be." He reinforces the point later on, "Life is more than just reaching our goals. As individuals and as a group we need to reach our potential. Nothing else is good enough."

Indeed, as those last words suggest, DePree believes that the best institution encourages—and continually pushes—everyone to excel. And a tough-minded concept, performance, is essential, "Without the promise of accountability, there are no true opportunities and risks." And, "Without true opportunity and risk there is no chance to seize accountability ..."

Accountability holds for leaders, too, though DePree's definition is, as usual, hardly conventional, "At the heart of being accountable is the matter of caring." DePree acknowledges, with some irritation, the novelty of this idea: "In many areas of business, 'to care' is an innovation." He strikes a similar theme on several other occasions: "[Traditional managers'] skills at quantification are admirable. But I sometimes wonder how often they focus on the spirit?" and "[Management] practice without belief is a forlorn existence. Managers who ... only understand methodologies and quantification are modern-day eunuchs."

Herman Miller's sustained performance demonstrates that the payoff from these strange-sounding ideas comes in dollars and cents. (The Zeeland, Mich., firm recently ranked as seventh among the Fortune 500 in ten-year return to investors, and has been one of Fortune's ten "most admired" companies in America.) But for the leader himself or herself, DePree declares, the rewards are much greater. Though "bearing pain," "owing," and "indebtedness" are part of the leader's role, the lasting reward of being a leader, of any group, is "having the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who permit leaders to lead."

DePree's book is stunning. He begs the reader to chew on it a little bit at a time. I have done just that, waiting for five months to write this column. Herman Miller excels in a viciously competitive environment, with numerous foreign players and domestic stellar firms such as next-door neighbor Steelcase. These ideas, which started with DePree's father, D.J., have stood the test of time.

Yes, it may sound strange, this continuous harping on serving, trusting, abandoning ourselves to the "skills of others, therefore becoming vulnerable. The same risks as one has when falling in love." But I'd urge you to go back and re-read my opening paragraph. Maybe these odd questions are just the sort that you, as leader of a 2- or 2000-person band, should be asking of your subordinates—and, more importantly, of yourself.

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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