Features & Perspectives

The Torah tells a sojourning people of a time when they will drink from wells they did not dig. We whose work includes the careful consideration of the great ideas of time know a lot about such hydration.

The seminary dean at Eastern University leads a faculty of scholar-activists who have equally long lists of publications and arrests – for sit-ins and protests. This dean combines a deep passion for justice with sapient judgments during times of great tension.

After one such time, I commented on her unusual giftedness and asked her who was the wisest person she knew. Her answer, Max De Pree, a fellow member of a board for many years, was quite a surprise. She saw the expression on my face and said, “Look, David, I’m not at all happy that the wisest person I know is an Anglo male who is president of a manufacturing company in a small Midwestern town!”

She then gave me a copy of notes she had taken when listening to De Pree speak on the attributes of a good leader at a national gathering of nonprofit board members. The same content appeared in 2008 in a De Pree book entitled, “Leadership Jazz.”

Since reading those notes and that book, I have drunk often from the well De Pree dug. Let me share some of his thoughts. Please note that they refer to qualities and not tasks. A future perspective will discuss the tasks of leadership.

De Pree mentions 12 attributes while acknowledging that they are far from exhaustive. He prefaces the 12 with the belief that leaders should serve others, maintaining a posture of debt to colleagues that affords them no rights other than what are common to all. I will share four of the attributes in this Perspective, with the remaining eight included in the next edition.

  1. Integrity. This is the linchpin of leadership. When integrity is at stake, leaders work publicly. Behavior is the only score that is kept. Integrity withers without justice, and justice demands both a commitment to the common good and the stewardship of limited resources. An inherent tension between those two demands can only be managed in a climate of trust, including trust in the integrity of leadership.
  2. Discernment. It must be sought. But it cannot be purchased from even the most astute consultant. It lies somewhere between wisdom and judgment. It “sees into” many things – pain, beauty, anxiety, loneliness and heartbreak. Three elements of discernment are empathy, the detection of nuance and the perception of changing realities.
  3. Awareness of the Human Spirit. In a special way, all qualities of good leadership stem from this one. Without understanding the yearnings, struggles and cares of the human spirit, how could anyone presume to lead a group of people. Even though professional skills are absolutely essential in organizational leadership, they must always be preceded by an awareness and understanding of the human condition.
  4. Vulnerability – Vulnerable leaders trust in the abilities of other people and allow them space to do their best. Excessive bureaucracy and controls kill passion and rob colleagues of meaning in their work. Vulnerability is the opposite of self-expression.

Before coming to this office at Lakeland in 1989, I got separate notes from two well diggers who were also academics. Mom advised limiting the use of first person pronouns, concluding that “too many are not becoming, even though they seem to be an occupational hazard for presidents.” Dad wrote similarly, then cautioned that “even when you are tempted to think otherwise, the work will never be about you.”

With gratitude to those two wise souls and all of the well diggers at Lakeland, it is my intent that this administration reflects the attributes that De Pree called “good.”