Reflections on the “Thorn” of Bill Gore’s Freedom Principle

There is a new application making frequent appearances these days: the Word Cloud. The Word Cloud is a way of visualizing (in intriguing forms) terms that appear with varying frequency in a document – often-used terms appear the largest, while less-used terms are smaller. These Word Clouds often create surprise, as people contemplate the import behind the “big” words, and the presumed lack of import of the “little” words.

I’ve wondered, what would Bill Gore’s Word Cloud look like? If we took all his talks, articles, and thought pieces to generate a Word Cloud, what would the image show us about the importance of the terms he used?

Some time back, when I was an Associate at Gore, an outside author who was writing a book on leadership and wisdom asked me what Bill Gore thought of wisdom. Well, Bill wasn’t against it. But an archival search of Bill’s papers yielded a surprising finding: he apparently never used the word “wisdom.” He frequently used the word “judgment” or “good judgment,” but never wisdom. I explained to the author that while wisdom was obviously important at W. L. Gore & Associates, it wasn’t one of Bill’s “god” terms (as the rhetorical scholars would have it). Instead, Bill favored the terms “Dream” and “Freedom.”

As one of the four guiding principles, “Freedom” would surely show up with some significance in a Bill Gore Word Cloud, along with “Fairness,” “Commitment,” and “Waterline.” But my bet is that “Freedom” would be found more often in Bill’s writings than any of the other three. And that’s because Bill was especially passionate about the importance of “Freedom” and its link to “Dream.” Indeed, among Associates, along with Bill’s thought piece on “The Lattice Organization: The Philosophy of Enterprise,” “Freedom to Dream” ranks as one of the most significant of Bill’s writings.

Now, having “Freedom” articulated as one of the four basic building blocks of the cultural foundation of your Enterprise is not without challenges. How can you run an organization if you let freedom run rampant? Well, of course, you can’t and you don’t. But, in some ways, I suspect Bill intended the nomenclature to be a thorn or a prick to make us think deeply about what we’re actually doing as we lead, coordinate, and organize.

I have had many conversations with leaders at Gore who would confide, “Gee, I wish Bill had used a different word and not ‘freedom.’ It causes no end of grief.” For one thing, it can create an impression of the Enterprise as some airy-fairy land where everyone has freedom and does whatever they darn well please. And there is a real problem when some Associates misunderstand what “Freedom” really means in the context of an organization; when they “play the Freedom card” whenever they want to do (or not do) something out of their own (unenlightened) self-interest. I personally never experienced an Associate doing so, but stories of some Associates doing so are common enough that I suppose it does happen.

Other leaders insist that Bill didn’t really mean “Freedom” and go on to quote the rest of the definition of the principle: “We will help other Associates grow in skill level, scope, and level of responsibility.” In other words, they say, Bill was really talking about “personal growth” and not Freedom, so he should have called it the “Freedom To Grow” principle. I have some sympathy for that point of view.

But no, Bill called it the Freedom principle. And to understand why, I think it helps to contemplate Bill’s background, experiences, and thinking. Bill was born in Idaho, and grew up in Utah, and was truly a Westerner in spirit. He believed in the individualism of the wide-open spaces, yes, but an enlightened individualism. People should be able to do what they wanted to do, achieve what they could achieve, and contribute as they could. But, for Bill, individuality was never meant to be haphazard self-interest. Sometimes, people achieved more when they cooperated. People gave help because sometime in the future they might need help in return.

In his working life, Bill experienced the “conformity” of the 1950s Organizational Man. He saw people identifying themselves with their title, position, and place on the hierarchical ladder. It is telling that Bill’s peak experiences at work were when he participated on a task-force of people who, regardless of position, treated each other as equals on a first name basis where everyone pitched in whatever ideas and energy they had to help solve a problem. Even though there was a free form to the work of the task-force, the overriding goal kept everyone focused, and individual self-responsibility mitigated against non-productive individuality. Doesn’t that sound like a bunch of cowboys working to keep the herd together during a storm? And it is also telling that Bill actually found it sad that, when the task-force experience was over, people went back to their offices with their titles and positions and lack of energy.

These two experiences—task-force and hierarchy—impacted Bill’s thinking. A member of the family once told me, “When Bill said ‘freedom,’ he meant ‘freedom!’” For Bill, people inherently wanted to be free, to pursue a dream, to achieve, to contribute. So why didn’t they? Because most companies were more interested in making sure people were controlled and not free. And who had the most to lose if people weren’t controlled? The bosses, whose job it was to control them. So, for Bill, the need was less about articulating that people ought to be free—that was a given—and more about the need to focus on the constraints to freedom in an organization; namely, other people. And so the mandate became: Give freedom to others. Help them grow. People could be trusted (usually) to use freedom responsibly. More often the problem was that leaders and teammates struggled to trust that people would use freedom responsibly, and tried to use their position in the hierarchy to constrain individuals.

Sometimes the constraint was petty. “I’m a boss and I get to throw my weight around.” “It’s my way or the highway.” There were such leaders at Gore, but thankfully fewer of them than in many organizations. And if they were truly only motivated by dreams of self-promotion or control, the “self-cleansing power of the lattice” would take care of them. More often, the constraints put on people are well intended. There are never enough resources for everyone to pursue their own product ideas, or ideas about how to improve service. Too many innovations (that don’t actually deliver value to the customer), only creates an operational nightmare as everyone does everything their own way.

But Bill anticipated such concerns, and that’s why there were four principles and not just one. Freedom didn’t trump Fairness. Freedom didn’t trump Commitment. Freedom didn’t trump Waterline (the principle determining when decision-making is taken unilaterally or collectively). Bill believed in freedom, but with responsibility. And he believed that Associates were mature enough to handle that responsibility. So, he added Freedom as a balancing principle to make sure that the tendency for “I know better than you what you should do” was balanced by “oh, yeah?”

That balance takes wisdom, time, energy—on the part of Associates and on the part of leaders. Sometimes it feels like it would be a whole lot easier if we didn’t have to balance, and didn’t worry about Freedom. But we do. That’s the thorn Bill left for us.

A perceptive senior leader once said that working at Gore was like “an advanced course in citizenship.” She was referring to the way the culture presumed that well-intentioned people could individually and collectively navigate the poles of freedom and responsibility.

I sometimes marvel that we grappled with the word “Freedom” more at Gore than in almost any other domain—public or private—that I participated in. It’s a big word in the Word Cloud. Thankfully.



One response to “Reflections on the “Thorn” of Bill Gore’s Freedom Principle

  1. very deep insights you shared with this article, Mike
    I particularly appreciated your observations about “Freedom as a balancing principle to make sure that the tendency for “I know better than you what you should do” was balanced by “oh, yeah?”.
    Just simple as you write it, as complex to constantly act according to this principle….
    thanks, Mike for this

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s