Max's Leadership Touch

When I sit at my office desk in my brown Aeron desk chair, I often think of Max DePree, one of my favorite leaders. Max was for many years the CEO of Herman Miller, the company that manufactured my desk chair.

He also authored several books on servant leadership. My favorite book is Leadership Jazz. He used the leader of a jazz band as a metaphor for creating a work environment in which improvisations were valued yet the collection of performers created a pleasurable outcome.

Max opened the book with a powerful story that zeroed in on the essence of leadership. His granddaughter Zoe (the Greek word for life) was born prematurely and weighed one pound and seven ounces, so tiny his wedding ring could fit over her arm or leg. Additionally, Zoe’s biological father abandoned Max’s daughter the month before Zoe was born.

The first time Max suited up in protective gear to visit Zoe in her isolate in the neonatal unit of the hospital she had two IV’s in her arms, one in her navel, and a feeding tube plus a breathing tube in her mouth. A wise and caring nurse named Ruth gave Max his instructions.

“For the next several months, you will be the surrogate father,” she told him. “I want you to come see her everyday. While you are here I would like you to rub her arms and her legs with the tip of your finger. While you are caressing her you should tell her over and over how much you love her because she needs to connect your voice with your touch.”

Max closes the poignant story by making this powerful point:

“Ruth was doing exactly the right thing for Zoe and without realizing it, she was giving me the perfect description of the work of a leader. At the core of being a leader is the ability to always connect one’s voice with one’s touch.”

A Leader's Touch

If you need to speak to an operator at Zappos, don't be shocked if you find yourself speaking with Zappos' CEO Tony Hsieh taking calls from customers…especially during the holidays when operators can be super busy covering inbound calls.

Tony is connecting his voice and his message of over-the-top service with his touch. Instead of talking about delivering happiness to customers, he role models delivering happiness.

If you are at Dallas Love Field near the headquarters of Southwest Airlines during a busy holiday, don’t be surprised if you see CEO Gary Kelly loading bags on the tarmac. It is a tradition started by founder and former CEO Herb Kelleher who was a master voice-touch connector. His actions not only signal the priority of the organization, but it convinces employees the leader’s message is real and credible.

A number of years ago I checked into the Biscayne Bay Marriott in Miami. One of the desk clerks looked striking familiar. As the bellman escorted me to the elevator with my luggage, I just had to know.

“Is that Bill Marriott behind the desk?” I asked. I had seen his picture with his dad numerous times in the lobbies of Marriotts around the world.

“It is,” the bellman said with a smile, “He has been at this hotel a couple of days.” Bill Marriott is a voice-touch connector.

Humorist Will Rogers is credited with saying, “People learn from observation, not conversation.” And, while he was referring to politicians, the sentiment applies to all leaders. Employees do not watch your mouth; they watch your moves.

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