All for All: How “Leadership” Happens at Gore

There is an interesting clip from the BBC in which Henry Stewart, founder of Happy, Ltd., speaks about his belief that employees should be free to choose their own managers.  He argues that imposing management from the top-down goes hand-in-hand with the assumption that workers won’t do their job without close supervision, whereas allowing employees to choose their managers reflects a trust that they are self-motivated and, in the right environment, will seek out opportunities and challenges.  Citing various studies, he concludes that if you force an employee to report to a bad manager, nothing good happens.  As an example of the effectiveness of allowing employees to choose their own managers, he points to W. L. Gore and Associates, where, he says, Associates not only choose their own managers, they are able to choose anybody to play that role.

In fact, the practice at Gore is more complicated.  Gore eschews the title of “manager,” which has led to the characterization, from the outside, that Gore has “no bosses.”  Perhaps this mythic notion began back in 1982 with Inc. magazine’s cover article calling Bill Gore the “unManager.”  But how “leadership” happens at Gore is more nuanced than Associates just choosing their own leaders—and is nowhere akin to citizens in a democracy choosing their leaders by voting for them.

In place of the term “manager,” Gore more generally uses the term “leader.”  A “leader” at Gore often does many of the functions associated with “managers” in other organizations—although how they perform these functions is often distinctively different.  Reflecting some of these differences, Gore Associates will often quote phrases like “leaders aren’t appointed at Gore,” or “leaders are those who have followers” or “followership has to be earned.”  And so, it is easy to imagine that somehow “followers choose leaders.”  To some extent, that is true.  But leadership is never a vote or an election at Gore; rather, it is an emergent process.  Instead of saying that Associates choose leaders, it would be more accurate to say that Associates choose to follow leaders.

Associates choose to follow leaders for a variety of reasons.  In the “ideal case” (and I would say the ideal is achieved more times than not), the leader emerges because of his or her passion, credibility, competence, capacity to make things happen, capacity to help others get things done, and ability to create a narrative about the importance of some activity within the larger context of values and culture at Gore.  Associates who are similarly committed “follow” someone because he or she advances their team’s contributions and their own abilities to get important things done.  In this ideal case, the leader gets followership from those working on the team, and his or her “position” as leader is subsequently acknowledged and affirmed by functional, divisional or Enterprise leaders.

But sometimes it does not happen this way.  Sometimes functional, divisional or Enterprise leaders see a need or opportunity where a champion is necessary to move a project or a team forward.  In the case of a project, the initiative may be such that no one is currently working in that area, or those working in that area haven’t really gotten any traction because no one has emerged to pull together the disparate strands of effort common in the earliest stages of a project.  In the case of an existing functional team, it may be that no one is emerging as a leader from within the team.  So, in these kinds of cases, a more senior leadership team may decide that they will follow a specific Associate.  This Associate then seems to be “appointed” by senior leadership, but the choice still remains with the Associates whether or not they will choose to follow this (appointed) leader.  In some cases, they will—maybe because they believe that the support from senior leadership is enough of a vote of confidence that they are willing to give the Associate a chance, sometimes because they know that a champion (although not necessarily a leader, a champion is recognized as a subject-matter expert, somehow who can initiate a project, and become the go-to person for questions) or leader is needed if any progress is to be made and the designated Associate is as good a choice as any in their mind.  Sometimes they withhold full followership, and assume good intentions and work accordingly, but waiting to see if “full followership” is truly earned.  And sometimes they do not choose to follow the designated leader (for good reasons or bad).  Sometimes there is conflict within the team, and the dissenters move to other commitments.  Sometimes the leader fails to earn the followership of the team (despite senior leadership support) and a new leader must be found.

How do Gore leaders lead?  What’s different?  What makes a leader at Gore something other than a manager?

The key is that Gore leaders are comfortable with, and even promote, other members of the team also leading.  They do not need to be the ones who “always” make the decision, have the final call, or even know the right answer.  They know that in one situation, Associate A is the person who is driving something, is knowledgeable, and should be the one to make the decision.  They know in another situation, the right decision will need to emerge from a good debate among the members of the team.  In some rare cases, the leader needs to make the decision because the team is tied up in knots, or the team is leaning in a direction contrary to the larger vision and context of the Enterprise.  But even in these cases, the leader will use the decision process as an opportunity to explain the reasoning behind the decision, thereby inviting questions and feedback and modeling an effective leadership style that will help “followers” grow.  When leaders lead in this way, they take advantage of the natural tendencies of people to want to contribute what they can, and the probability that those closest to a situation have a unique insight into what should be done.  Gore leaders, in effect, minimize the “power” differential between themselves and their followers, and encourage a collaborative spirit aimed at collectively making a (better) contribution.  At Gore, leaders encourage the leadership of all.

There is a fascinating outcome of this way of leading.  Every year, Gore conducts a “Culture Survey” to take the pulse on how well the Gore culture is being practiced throughout the Enterprise.  There are many “standard” survey items—ones you might expect, like, “I like working at Gore.”  And there are some that are reflective of the particulars of the Gore culture, like, “Where I work, leaders have followers.”  One simple demographic question, though, speaks volumes.  The question is, “Do you consider yourself a leader at Gore?”  This question has been repeated many times over the 24 years of the culture survey, and very consistently, about 50% of all Associates consider themselves “leaders.”

I do not have a benchmark figure for other organizations, but from anecdotes that people tell about how little their input is considered in the decisions that affect them, and how often any proposals they make need to be reviewed and re-reviewed by “higher ups,” I’m guessing that in most organizations most people do not consider themselves leaders.

In Stewart’s talk, he suggests that chosen managers should prioritize “making employees happy.” I see this as a potentially misguided management strategy, not least because “happiness” is an ephemeral emotion. Instead, I would suggest that Gore’s approach to leadership results in the satisfaction of Associates, because the culture makes it possible for people to effectively contribute through collaborative efforts to the success of the Enterprise. At Gore, the opportunity for Associates to lead, and to affect who becomes a leader by initiating “followership” results in an attitude of “all for all” which is one of the reasons that Gore is regularly recognized as one of the best companies to work for.

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