On servant leadership and surprises

Max De Pree. Herman Miller.

The more I find out about the man and the company, the more I am intrigued and even enthralled.

Just take a look at their web site. There’s a little tab that says “What we do”. And when you ‘lift’ that tab, this is what it says:

  • We study work and living environments and design and deliver products and services that make these environments work better.

I’ve said it before. If you haven’t done so already, find a copy of Leadership is An Art. And read it. If you can’t find a copy, let me know and I will find you one. I think it’s typical, and very fitting, that when you look up Max De Pree in Wikipedia, you don’t go to an article about him, but about servant leadership. That says it all.

Incidentally, if you’re interested in servant leadership, take a look at the wikipedia entry. There are some useful links there, particularly showing the interplay between opensource principles and servant leadership.

And now for something completely different. Well, not really … while looking for books on Max De Pree, I came across an unusual pamphlet. Titled “A statement of expectations”, it is a lovely little publication, containing the brief provided by De Pree to his architects prior to the building of a new Herman Miller facility in Bath, and a photographic record of how the architects responded to that brief.

It’s a very short brief. And some of the words are very powerful. Here are a few quoted examples:

  • The environment should encourage fortuitous encounter and open community.
  • The space should be subservient to human activity.
  • Commitment to performance for single functions or needs is to be avoided.
  • The facility must be able to change with grace, be flexible and non monumental.
  • Planning of utilities has to meet the needs we can perceive.
  • We wish to create an environment which will welcome all and be open to surprise.

De Pree was really on to something when he spoke of encouraging “fortuitous encounter” and being “open to surprise”. Servant leadership is all about helping others develop, reach and extend their potential. And in order to do that, you must allow for fortuitous encounters and be open to surprise. De Pree felt so strongly about it that, even before writing his books on leadership and on servant leadership, he articulated it in, of all things, a set of instructions to architects. Wow.

Let me know what you think

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