With silver hair and a voice that wavered, Sister Margaret seemed really old to me as a young college graduate. It’s only been all these years later, many since she passed away, that I now recognize how her age didn’t take away from the value of her faithful presence as a leader in the community. In fact, her age enhanced her ability to minister. She wasn’t really a “sister;” the neighborhood kids, prostitutes and pimps, the drug dealers, and gang members called her that. She committed her life to them, offering VBS in the afternoons, bible studies for the teenage moms, as well as home visits for the single parents who were trying to figure out how to keep their kids in school. At her memorial service, the amount of people and the diversity of the attendees reflected her incredible impact. She knew the art of leadership.
Max De Pree has a similar legacy of commitment represented by his “faithful presence” in leadership, impacting numerous people of diverse backgrounds. Considered one of the giants in organizational leadership along with Robert Greenleaf, Warren Bennis, Barry Posner, his influence crosses business boundaries by offering a fresh perspective of what it means to lead as one who considers the message of Jesus Christ – living as a servant leader whereby “the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.”
Offered as a dialogue about his years as CEO of Herman Miller, De Pree’s Leadership is an Art illustrates the ideas, practices, and hard earned lessons he discovered from his experiences. Practicing his core values of integrity and mentoring, he expresses himself like someone I would converse with while sharing over a cup of coffee. In my experiences interacting with Sister Margaret, I didn’t always understand where she was going when I served alongside her for that summer break, but she seemed to know, and I trusted her in the process. DePree operates comparably by his random writing of business principles, but he eventually reveals his genius by connecting the business world to words unfamiliar in that kind of setting: respect, wisdom, forgiveness, meaningful work, know your value system, body language. Depree recognizes that leadership is as much about the person as it is about the skills and tools they effectively use.
Towards the end of the book, Depree uses the word “elegant” to describe the types of leaders who need to “free the people they lead to do the same.” Referencing the ability to look at the whole system whether in a person or organization, Depree points out how the need to operate out of a perspective of completeness, or what I would characterize as integration, rather than only in parts of the picture. He goes on to name elements of an “elegant leader” with a cursory list of qualities: seeking covenants not contracts in relationships, wisdom and education, use of time and involvement, hierarchy and equality, forgiveness and freedom to name a few.
What’s interesting to note is that the qualities all hold a certain tension. That type of elegance requires a willingness to hold the paradoxes as a way to integrate how to lead others, as suggested in his list. He speaks, as a businessman who stereotypically would compartmentalize the character of a person from the institution, to the intentionality “to keep ‘becoming’ as individuals – we would be better off as persons, as corporations, and as institutions.” He recognizes that to get something accomplished requires the completeness/integration of the tension of both the person’s ability to do something as well as to be something.
As I’ve been working on my academic essay for this semester, exploring my potential dissertation topic, I’ve landed on a term I’ve created called “Elegant Kenosis” for the process by which someone becomes old gracefully. Kenosis, a theological word, defines the emptying of one’s self, imitating the act of Jesus by letting go of his own will to follow God’s will. It involves a choice to make oneself “nothing.” In the act of aging by “return[ing] to the ground…for you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” we can intentionally live into giving ourselves away. The use of elegance references the definition of not just beauty and graceful, but also simplicity. Putting the two together indicates that one can choose with grace and simplicity how to divest of oneself that is life-giving not only for the individual, but also for those around him/her.
With De Pree’s use of “elegant,” I see an additional meaning now for my coined phrase. Leadership influences; elegant leadership influences others through a particular way of operating. It requires the wisdom of holding more than a formula; it requires living a life that seeks to understand the art of “knowing who we intend to be [that] always determines what we will do with our lives,” In that reflective discovery, we can make the choices that determine how we give our lives away. Both Max De Pree and Sister Margaret made a choice to offer themselves to others. As a result, their leadership impacts us not as a step-by-step process to influence others but as a way of life, integrating reality with creativity. In that elegant kenosis, art remains of a life well-lived.
 Max De Pree, Leadership Is an Art (New York: Crown Business, 2004), 11.
 Ibid, 142.
 Ibid, 144-145.
 Ibid, 144.
 Philippians 2:7
 Genesis 3:19
 Depree, xii.
6 responses to “Elegant Kenosis”
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I like the word “elegant Kenosis.” If there was ever a time to for leadership that has the Spirit of Christ in them it is now. And may they have that quality of Kenosis, the spirit to empty themselves and to do for the sake of the growth and empowerment of the people the serve. Beaut Mary!
“Both Max De Pree and Sister Margaret made a choice to offer themselves to others. As a result, their leadership impacts us not as a step-by-step process to influence others but as a way of life, integrating reality with creativity.”
This is such an essential piece of true leadership. True leadership is not the same as “being the boss”. There are many bosses who are not good leaders. What I love about the story of Sister Margaret is that her leadership flowed out of who she was and a desire to love others.
“Elegant Kenosis.” I really like that term Mary. It’s one of those that is just pregnant with meaning! It paints such a beautiful picture in the mind of the hearer. As you move through life, you empty yourself, season by season, stage by stage… it is consistent with our mandate to live, and die, like Jesus, FOR OTHERS!
Thanks for this
Mary, I’m really looking forward to reading your essay on Elegant Kenosis. It’s definitely an aging issue but as you point out it’s really a leadership issue too. That’s such a different definition of leadership then the world gives but the most significant world changing act and greatest act of leadership that Jesus gave was when He emptied himself for the sake of the Kingdom. True leadership.
Very rich reflection on “emptying oneself out”, and combining it with the paradoxical pull of leadership which is getting something done but the larger issue of helping someone become.
I’d love to learn to empty myself out while helping others become the men and women God intends them to be. Great challenge Mary.
I love your post this week. My grandmother was one of the strongest leaders I know…yet she never served in what the world considers a leadership role. A person always knew they were loved and prayed for. As a prayer warrior and a compassionate soul, her wisdom and advice was widely sought after.