The Leader as Tiller: Defining Reality

By Mark D. Roberts

June 2, 2015

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”

Genesis 2:15


In yesterday’s Life for Leaders devotion, we began to consider how we might be tillers in our work. Most of us do not literally till the soil, of course. But there is an aspect of tilling in many jobs, especially in leadership positions. Even as tilling the soil prepares it for planting, growth, and fruitfulness, so tilling is our work of preparing, planning, and prioritizing. Tilling is fostering a corporate culture in which people can flourish in their work.

As I reflect on the tilling aspects of leadership, I am reminded of a well-known quotation from Max De Pree. In his book Leadership Is an Art, Max writes, “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” (p. 11). I would suggest that defining reality is part of the tilling function of leadership.

How do we define reality? In part, we do this by acknowledging what is true in the organization we lead. If we’re flourishing, we say so and try to explain why. If we’re floundering, we have the courage to admit it. Tilling leaders don’t pretend that everything is great when it isn’t. We acknowledge what is real.

Defining reality is also, and perhaps more profoundly, establishing core beliefs and values of an organization. In various ways, the leader says, “This is what really matters here.” This is true whether your leadership is over a major corporation or a small office. It’s true for entrepreneurs, middle managers, teachers, pastors, and parents. When we define the essential beliefs of any organization, we are tilling the soil (or, perhaps, hardening it if our core beliefs are antithetical to flourishing).

Allow me to use a personal example here. You would rightly see each installment of Life for Leaders as a piece of fruit of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership (which produces and publishes Life for Leaders). When you read a devotion and take it to heart, you are harvesting the fruit, so to speak. But there is also a tilling aspect to Life for Leaders. By making this one central feature of the work of the De Pree Center, and by investing much of my own time in this enterprise, I am seeking to establish core organizational values, such as: serving leaders effectively; a biblical basis for all we do; the importance of connecting faith and daily work; etc. I hope that by tilling in this way, I am helping to create a corporate culture that will help leaders to flourish in life and leadership as they grow into deeper intimacy with an understanding of God through scriptural reflection and prayer. Life for Leaders is meant to serve you each day and also to define the reality of the De Pree Center.


Where in life have you been given the authority to define reality (at least in part)? How do you do this? In what ways does your defining reality serve as a kind of tilling of the soil of your organization?


Gracious God, we begin by acknowledging that you are the ultimate definer of reality, the first tiller of all things. We live and lead within the reality you have created and the values you have revealed.

Yet, you have given us the power to till in this world, partly by defining reality through our leadership. Help us, Lord, to speak what is true about our organizations, both the good and the bad. Give us wisdom to define rightly the core values of our organization. May these values faithfully reflect the reality of the world you created and endowed with meaning.

Help me, Lord, to till well today, for your glory. Amen.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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