The Millwright Died

One of my favorite book on leadership is a short book called Leadership is an Art by Max DePree. In a simple and straightforward fashion, the author tells the following story in this excerpt entitled, “The Millwright Died”.

My father is 96 years old. He is the founder of Herman 
Miller, and much of the value system and impounded energy of the company is…a part of his contribution. In the furniture industry in the 1920’s the machines of most factories were not run by electric motors, but from pulleys from a central drive shaft. The central drive shaft was run by a steam engine. The steam engine got its fuel from the sawdust and other waste coming out of the machine room – a beautiful cycle. The  millwright was the person who oversaw that cycle. He was a key person. 

One day the millwright died.

My father being a young manager at the time, did not particularly know what he should do when a key person died, but thought he ought to go and visit the family. He went to the house and was invited to join the family in the living room.

There was some awkward conversation – the kind with which many of us are familiar. The widow asked my father if it would be all right if she read aloud some poetry. Naturally he agreed… When she finished reading, my father commented on how beautiful the poetry was and asked who wrote it. She replied that her husband, the millwright, was the poet.

It is now nearly 60 years since the millwright died, and my father and many of us at Herman Miller continue to wonder: Was he a poet that did millwright’s work, or was he a millwright who wrote poetry?

In our effort to understand corporate life, what is it that we should learn from this story? In addition to all of the ratios and goals and parameters and bottom lines, it is fundamental that leaders endorse the concept of persons. This begins with the understanding of the diversity 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.

Recognizing diversity gives us the chance to provide meaning, fulfillment and purpose, which are not to be relegated to  private life any more than are such things as love, beauty, and joy.

When we think about leaders and the variety of gifts people bring to corporations and institutions, we see that the art of leadership lies in polishing and liberating and enabling those gifts.