Max DePree, Leader, Mentor, Memoirist

A few weeks ago, my husband Stuart and I traveled to the “west coast” of Michigan, first to Saugatuck, where we had a lovely visit on a rainy day to the Wickwood Inn, and then to Holland, where Stuart explored the downtown and I visited Max DePree, the man who has been my mentor for more than a decade.

I would never have thought of Max as a memoir writer had I not begun this blog.  Max has written three best-selling books on leadership and one on volunteer boards: 

Those books contain personal stories from his years of leading the Herman Miller furniture company, his family life, and his service on nonprofit boards.  They exude a rare combination:  confidence, authority, humility, and accountability.  Max lives his philosophy of leadership, best exemplified by the title of this book:  Leading Without Power:  Finding Hope in Serving CommunityMax has been generous with his time.  He was the first mentor in my life to ask me the kind of questions I described in my last post:  personal, ambiguous, and anxiety-producing.  I look forward to our infrequent one-on-one meetings because I will inevitably be surprised by one of his questions and ponder them long afterward.

Max has written one book that is evidently out of print now.  It is a memoir in the form of a letter to his granddaughter Zoe.  Called Dear Zoe, the book describes the Max’s love for the premature baby born to his daughter, a baby so tiny that her arm fit inside Max’s wedding ring.  Max helped Zoe cling to life by gently stroking her tiny body while talking to her.  A nurse in the hospital told him,  “She has to connect your voice to your touch.”

Max will be celebrating an important birthday in a few days.  I won’t tell you which one it is, but if you guess it by looking at this picture taken in August, you will guess too low. Max continues to connect his voice and his touch with his family and many friends.  My life has been immensely enriched by Max’s voice.  His questions echo in my mind.  His stories instruct my own.  His spirit inspires me to be a better person.

Happy Birthday, Max!

Shirley Showalter


  1. audrey on October 13, 2008 at 9:55 am

    I am an 81 year old blogger. Please take a look at my site on memoirs of my life: I grew up in Baltimore with many happy memories. My old neighborhood in west Baltimore is too dangerous to walk through. There was a time when I thought I would never leave the city because of all it’s convenience. If you didn’t have a car you could ride a street car. Going down town was always a great pleasure. There were large Department stores, theaters and museums. Where I lived you could walk to the zoo, movie theater and a roller rink.Audrey

  2. Walter Wright on October 19, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    Shirley:The day I am writing this (Oct 20), ironically is the day I intended to be flying through Grand Rapids with a mind to visit Max. I had arranged with Max to spend a few hours together on Tuesday to continue my own mentoring relationship with him. Unfortunately United Airlines does not have a convenient route from Pasadena to Scranton that allows time for a side trip to Holland, MI. Like you, I have benefitted richly from these sessions with Max over the years. His provocative questions usually probe more deeply than my initial conclusions and his wisdom and experience always give perspective to my immediate concerns. It is a rare gift and a wonderful resource to have a wise mentor out there, a little further along the trail of life, to help us negotiate the twists and turns, the ascents and descents of this journey.Happy Birthday, Max! May the next year be full of health, learning and the joy of love.Walter Wright

  3. Nancy Ortberg on October 20, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Max would have no idea how often I quote him, think about what he might think or do in a given situation, and ruminate on the many pieces of leadership wisdom he has given me over the years.I agree with Shirley…Max is one of those rare people, who after every encounter with them, your soul stirs a bit in the direction of 'noble', and you deeply desire to the best person that God created you to be.In addition to all of that, both he and Esther have been showing John and I, for years, what it means to grow old, well with God. Happy Birthday Max!

  4. kknipp on October 21, 2008 at 2:14 pm

    I am writing this post from Trail West Lodge in Buena Vista, Colorado, where I am attending the Senior Leadership meeting of Young Life. During a presentation this morning, all of us were asked to think of a living leader who was a model for us. Max DePree was the first person who came to mind. I deeply respect and appreciate Max's passion for the truth, his foresight, his humility, and his gracious spirit.Because of Max, I am a better person, a better husband, a better leader. Thank you, Max, and thank you Esther, for your wisdom, your example, your love, and your encouragement over the years! May you have a wonderful birthday and may this be a wonderful year! And may you sense the appreciation and love that so many of us have for you!Ken Knipp

  5. 321981 on October 25, 2008 at 11:06 am

    Outside of my parents, Max De Pree is the single most important person who shaped my beliefs and influenced my life. He has served as my mentor for 25 years. I worked for him at Herman Miller, for many years and witnessed his extraordinary leadership. He led Herman Miller with vision, values and love. I served as Vice President For People, a title Max gave me and I initially resisted. Over time I came to understand the awesome responsibility and accountability that title carried. Herman Miller under Max's leadership was my Camelot. Today I work with leadership teams as a catalyst for vision & values. I know the power and beauty of engaging people in a compelling shared vision rooted in deeply held shared values and aligning everything and everyone to serve the mission, vision & values – “doing good & doing well” by engaging the hearts, minds and imagination of people, is a powerful and meaningful way to lead and build community. Our world today desperately needs this approach to leadership – and that is my passion, my commitment and my “Art”. I owe all this to Max and my parents. I love you Max, Happy Birthday!Michele Hunt

  6. […] first learned about voice and touch from Max DePree. Max likes to joke that he is a “born leader” because his father owned the company he […]

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