“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” – Max DePree

Max DePree - Author of Leadership is an Art, Leadership Jazz and Leading Without Power

Max DePree: Former CEO of Herman Miller and Author of Leadership is an Art, Leadership Jazz and Leading Without Power

This quote, from Max DePree is among my favorite servant leadership quotes. This frames 3 roles every leader must fulfill: the roles of Realist, Praiser and Servant. In fact, I have this quote in my email signature at the office, so it may serve as a constant reminder to me and my colleagues, of these three critical roles. Here’s why:


Every leader should be a realist. Yes, to lead effectively, optimism is needed at times and you need to have Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals (BHAGs). You will also need to display vision. However, if a leader is not realistic, the followers may lose faith in them, their goals will become unobtainable and ultimately, that leader could set the organization up for failure. Instead, by being a realist, one can still display great vision, foresee opportunity and even set those BHAGs.

Examples of realities that are critical for leaders to understand include the operating norms of their industry, the capabilities of their organization and the financial standing of a company’s assets. Understanding of these realities and others does not inhibit, but in fact, empowers a leader to drive the greatest results. It’s not that the leader must always conform to realities, but they must understand the current environment in which they and their team must operate.


A leader must thank their constituents. Anyone that supports a leader and their mission needs affirmation of that fact. This is especially true during difficult times and turnaround situations where fiscal means of recognition and awards are less common. While people may not do the work simply because they want to be praised, individuals working hard enough, long enough, without such praise, will soon work elsewhere.


I do love this quote, but if I were to make any modification to it, it would be to simply say, “Throughout, the leader is a servant” rather than in between. This may be splitting hairs. However, this would emphasize that a leader is, at all times, a servant to their stakeholders. I believe this was Max’s intention as well. A leader serves the constituents by being a realist, praising their efforts and by helping them and their community achieve more. A real leader is one who wants to serve others and realizes that the best way for them to be of service is through their leadership (Greenleaf paraphrased).

The next time someone asks you what roles a leader must play, keep this mind. I am sure you have some others to add as well and I encourage you to do so in the comments below.

Question: What other roles do you believe every leader must play? How do you fulfill these roles?