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The Millwright Died

On the factory floor in the 1920s furniture industry, the millwright was at the core---the lynch-pin upon whom the entire process depended.

In the 1920s furniture industry, the factory machines were not run by electric motors, but by a sea of pulleys and belts from a central drive shaft. The central drive shaft was powered by a steam engine, which got its steam from a boiler. At Herman Miller, the boiler got its fuel from sawdust and other manufacturing waste – “a beautiful cycle.”

On the factory floor, the millwright was at the core. He oversaw and maintained the cycle. The millwright was the lynch-pin upon whom the entire process depended.

One day the millwright died.

At the time, De Pree’s father was a young manager who didn’t know what he should do. He decided to visit the family. He went to their home and was invited to join the family in the uneasy mourning and remembrance of their family member.

At one point the millwright’s widow asked to read a poem. She left the room and returned with a bound book, from which she read selected pieces of beautiful poetry. When she finished, De Pree commented on how beautiful the poetry was, and asked who wrote it.

The widow replied that her husband, the millwright, was the poet.

For at least 60 years thereafter, many at Herman Miller continued to wonder: “Was he a poet who did millwright’s work, or was he a millwright who wrote poetry?

In our own recent experience, when developing a corporate leadership succession strategy, we resolved to better understand each employee’s experiences inside and outside of work as we assessed their potential for career growth.

It was during this process we were surprised to learn, for example, that one of the junior accountants was also leading the budgeting, financial planning, and financial management for a large, multi-million-dollar regional church.

There is too much that we don’t know, and should know, about our employees. Do we take the time to understand the talents and intelligence that our people bring to their work every day?

We may assess their performance, but do we evaluate their potential? And do we frustrate them as they yearn for greater job challenges and career opportunities? Are we short-changing our employees? Are we cheating our organizations?

Let’s find out now and fully deploy our people; do our best to keep them challenged; and keep them from looking elsewhere for challenge and recognition.

Let’s really know our people. And let’s not wait for the millwright to die.

* Reference: Leadership is an Art by Max De Pree. (Video available at ). Max De Pree was the former Chair and CEO of the Herman Miller furniture company. He was preceded by his father.


Stan Davis is the Founding Principal of Standish Executive Search, a New England-based firm that advises business owners, executives and boards who are positioning their companies for accelerated growth, change or succession.

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