Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Impending Deterioration

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality,” is the arresting beginning of a short, quotable piece of wisdom from Max De Pree, the former CEO of Herman Miller, Inc.  (Google his string of memorable quotations and you'll have a short course in servant leadership.)

De Pree balanced that rare combination of God-honoring wisdom with business savvy. The board chair of a seminary, he was also named to Fortune magazine’s National Business Hall of Fame.

In his classic book, Leadership Is an Art (read my review), he writes that a financial analyst once asked him, “What is one of the most difficult things that you personally need to work on?”  De Pree’s answer: “The interception of entropy.”

He added, “One of the important things leaders need to learn is to recognize the signals of impending deterioration.”  He kept a list and observed that leaders, especially in large organizations, fail to see the signs of entropy, including: 1) a tendency toward superficiality; 2) no longer having time for celebration and ritual; 3) a growing feeling that rewards and goals are the same thing; 4) when people stop telling tribal stories or cannot understand them; and 5) when problem-makers outnumber problem-solvers.  His list was longer—but you get the idea.

De Pree’s thoughts on entropy are refreshingly unique in our leadership literature. I wonder if he was also thinking about boards when he wrote that chapter?

I mentioned this idea to a ministry CEO recently after he observed this condition in his boardroom. While he didn't quote De Pree or mention “entropy,” his comments could have been a sidebar in De Pree’s book.

I'm paraphrasing here but this CEO, a keen observer of his board culture, bullet-pointed the symptoms expressed by his board members:
   --“We're busy. Do we really need a board retreat to talk about the strategic plan?”
   --“Isn’t this good enough for nonprofit work?”
   --“We’re all successful business people. Why do we need board training?”

This CEO’s closing comment was poignant as he painted the picture. “To move my board to the next level of effectiveness,” he sighed, "will take a mighty shove!"

De Pree’s full quotation is worth memorizing. “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.”

I affirmed my CEO friend for reaching Phase One in his quest for a more effective and God-honoring board—defining reality.

QUESTION: What is your board’s reality? Entropy or excellence?

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