I think we can all learn from our own experiences and incorporate the lessons companies like Gore can teach us about the value of service-based leadership.

Every business school, website, and magazine these days is crammed with new definitions of leadership and “top 5 ways to be a better leader”. Thousands of textbooks have been written about leadership theories, competencies, frameworks, and styles; but without any consensus about what leadership is and how true leaders inspire others and create great companies.

If you look for a definition of Leadership, there doesn’t seem to be much more than the noun, “leadership” which is defined as “a person who leads a group or organization.” That’s not very helpful if you want to learn to be a leader — it doesn’t say anything about being a leader, or the qualities that might be considered leadership. It doesn’t say anything about being a good leader or how to get to a place in life where people actually want you to lead them.

I personally struggle with leadership and the qualities or traits I need and want to develop to become a better leader. I’ve read the books, but I often have a difficult time with the practice of being a leader. I hope to stimulate a dialogue about leadership through this article.

How do you lead? How do you create a culture that creates leaders? And most importantly, what are the key traits you like to see in the leaders you choose? Here’s my opening contribution to the discussion…

How do leaders become leaders?

In general, people seem to think of leadership in terms of the hierarchy of a company – leaders are easy to spot because they’re the ones in charge. But how does somebody get to be a leader? In both businesses and communities, people are bonded together in different ways, and different kinds of authority compel them to behave as they do. The most authentic “Authority” in these communities comes from a group consensus that a person has the qualities to be an effective leader (or at least it’s designed that way). If the community decides the leader has failed, they are replaced with a more suitable candidate.

Theoretically, those who exhibit characteristics people are willing to follow, and then are able to create a record of success, are those chosen to lead. This ideal is embodied in our culture as public service; and while politics in general often makes a mockery of this ideal, it truly does exist in small towns and communities – and in some really innovative businesses all over the world.

Traditionally, in business, we are supposed to serve our leaders; and they are supposed to determine what’s best for the organization.

I’ve heard this called “benevolent dictatorship” by many successful CEOs who run what they call a “tight ship” where personal loyalty is rewarded, often more than results. In traditional management, when leadership is based on bureaucratic authority, the leader is often seen as cold and calculating, often operating without the best interests of those they lead at the forefront of every decision – but rather the interests of shareholders or (gasp) glaring self-interest.

The lessons of my leadership journey

Over the last 30 years of my career, I’ve come to realize that the concept of the traditional management pyramid in which the leader sits atop an organization is upside down. In a “community” or “service-based” enterprise, people are invested with leadership authority by others who are willing to follow them as a leader.

That doesn’t mean you have to be a weak leader, or that you can’t hold the people who have chosen you accountable. When you base your leadership on effectively serving others, creating a workplace environment which includes many people with varied interests, backgrounds, ethnicities, lifestyles, and operational styles, I believe that you operate from more of an ethical authority that is rooted in service to those you are leading.

People have to trust a leader to operate with the interests of everyone in mind, including employees, shareholders and yes, even self. I don’t know yet if this is truly possible for all companies in reality, or if that level of trust can exist in every organization – and I still struggle personally with implementing these concepts in my own day-to-day leadership practice. But I do believe that with this type of authority, you can behave more authentically.

Why Bill Gore inspires me

This kind of leadership in business is still seen as “innovation”, and it is alive and well in many start-ups, and even billion dollar companies. My personal favorite example is W.L. (Bill) Gore, the inventor and maker of Gore-Tex and a host of other revolutionary materials and products as diverse as synthetic vascular grafts, innovative building materials, plastics, chemicals, Elixir guitar strings, and Glide dental floss. Gore has developed and implemented a wholly original, and to me, an endlessly inspirational, model of service and individual-centered, “democratic” innovation management that is the polar opposite of the traditional management pyramid.

I’ve long wondered how it is possible that a company with no titles, no formal innovation management processes, and almost no traditional structure could grow from a single product being made in a garage to a company of almost 9,000 employees and almost $3 billion in annual revenues.

Part of the answer is that Bill Gore set out to create an entirely new kind of company from the beginning. Not just great products, but a new kind of company culture – one that was profitable, innovative, and yet still exceptionally human. W.L. Gore & Associates has, since its inception, been an experiment in both product andmanagement innovation—an experiment that has grown to almost 9,000 employees with worldwide operations – an experiment that is still ongoing.

Even at the size and scale of a multinational conglomerate, W.L. Gore is a company with no traditional bosses, no supervisors, no managers and no vice presidents. Gore offers over 1,000 products—from the original Gore-Tex fabric, to medical products, synthetic building materials, and specialty materials (e.g., synthetic blood vessels), and a wide range of electronics products and industrial materials. Still a private company, Gore has grown revenues and consistently turned a profit since it was founded in 1958.

Gore’s answer to the challenges leaders face

A recent study of the challenges faced by leaders around the world found 6 common management challenges across seven countries. They were:

  1. Developing Managerial Effectiveness
  2. Inspiring Others
  3. Developing Employees
  4. Leading a Team
  5. Guiding Change
  6. Managing Internal Stakeholders and Politics

Remarkably, Bill Gore figured out back in 1958 that the best way to develop a company that addressed these challenges every day was not to have one-off training programs, but to build a company culture that embodies the development of these talents at the individual level, for every person in the company. He built his company on a set of principles and beliefs that even today guide “Gore Associates”, the only job title at Gore. This thinking informs the decisions they make, the focus of the work they do, and their behavior toward their fellow “Associates”. These principles are the “cultural norms” that reinforce the behaviors that help to create better managerial effectiveness, team building through effective communication and mentoring, and even leadership.

Bill started with an unusual idea, that the individual would do what’s right for the company simply because it was the right thing to do.

Believing in people to serve one another and make the right decisions has allowed Gore to harness the small team characteristics of fast decision-making, diverse perspectives, and teamwork usually found only in start-ups. The ideal that “we’re all in this together,” and that teams would “self form”, sharing risks and rewards, and remain committed to what’s best for the company and its long term success was truly innovative in 1958 and possibly even more so in today’s corporate world.

Gore “Associates” are encouraged to work toward achieving their own goals by directing their efforts to the success of the team and the company, to take action, to come up with ideas, and even to make mistakes as part of the creative process, and to encourage each other to grow. The core philosophy is that committed individuals don’t need close supervision; what they need is mentoring and support and that with this “service to team” as a core cultural value, people would rise to their best performance.

Bill Gore also understood that leadership had to be earned from the team – what he called “natural leadership”. Innovation and Business Team Leaders at Gore gain influence by developing a track record for successfully getting things done and for helping others on the team to achieve their own success. People have to want to be on your team because they believe in your abilities and respect your mentorship, the very essence of service-based leadership.

W.L. Gore takes this philosophy of natural leadership seriously even at the highest levels of the organization. When Chuck Carroll, Gore’s previous CEO, retired in 2005, the board polled a cross section of Gore employees to ask whom in the Company they wanted to follow. They weren’t given a list of names; they could nominate anyone in the company. One of those employees was Terri Kelly, and to Terri’s surprise, the new CEO turned out to be her and she continues to lead the company today.

Her blog on “Distributed Leadership”, or what Gore calls “lattice organization” is just one reason why I’m such a fan. In it, she makes the case that: “as organizations grow in size and complexity, it becomes even more critical to distribute the leadership load” to “a broad base of individuals and leaders who share a common set of values and feel personal ownership for the overall success of the organization.”

In my career I’ve been fortunate to have many great mentors that helped me find my own definition of leadership and, over my career as a CEO, I’ve redefined what leadership means to me many times; and my views continue to evolve with my management practice.

Most of my mentors defined leadership as a set of characteristics like integrity, vision and courage. While these are important, Gore has defined leadership by what an individual does – their actions: they must inspire, guide and equip – and how that doing impacts their colleagues, because each individual chooses whom they will follow. Gore recognizes that anyone can have the characteristics of a leader and still not be a leader, because true leadership is comprised of actions, and Gore has put in place a culture that demands and values actions and performance.

I think we can all learn from our own experiences and incorporate the lessons companies like Gore can teach us about the value of service-based leadership. Such an approach may be outside of our comfort zones, and certainly well outside of the usual “command and control” leadership practices. But personally, I believe it’s much more sustainable and, ultimately, a lot more fun.

David C Robinson

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