What is the advantage of being wise? We often identify people as wise when their actions enable them lo live a fulfilling and enjoyable life. People who are wise are frequently asked for advice or commentary on how they have faced challenges and they are often looked to as role models. At times an aura of mystery surrounds someone who is seen as wise, as the rent of us try to figure out what it is exactly that the wise person has achieved and how we could do so as well.
Organizations in which wisdom is present share some of the same characteristics as wise people—in part because wise people can be found inside of them, and also because collective wisdom is evident in how the organization has pursued success. Collective wisdom is more than the sum of each individual’s wise thoughts and actions. In a practical sense, the collective wisdom inside an organization supports people’s ability to make value-based or ethical judgments and follow through with actions that mirror those judgments. In a more profound sense, collective wisdom supports a group’s ability to make significant decisions that entail forgoing a short-term benefit or opportunity for the realization of a deeper benefit.
I believe that collective wisdom is more readily created, shared, and applied in great workplaces where trust is present. One tremendous benefit of trust, which we experience most intensely in our closest relationships, is that when people trust each other, they are more willing to share. In an organization with Trustworthy Leaders, people are more willing to move forward together and share their wisdom within the group, based on the collective trust embedded in their relationships. As we move along the path from uncertainty to opportunity, there are no better companions than trust and shared wisdom.
W. L. Gore & Associates is a perfect company to use as an example of the ways in which wisdom can be applied to the benefit of the organization. Perfect not because it is flawless, but because of the high levels of self-awareness at Gore—in individuals, among people together in their teams, and throughout the organization as a whole. This sell-awareness, combined with the foundational values of the orgainization, guides people’s actions and supports the development and application of deep wisdom. The culture of Gore—and the wisdom that exists within it—enables the organization to move from uncertainty to opportunity all the time, with all of the normal imperfections of human organizational life still present.
Gore is one of only five companies to have been included on every list of the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America since the inception of that list in 1984. They have achieved this distinction primarily due to the resonance and endurance of their culture. Gore’s strength is visible to outsiders in its innovative produce, creative idea generation, and financial success. The source of all this strength-the culture and the deep wisdom embedded in it—is a bit more elusive to describe, yet clearly experienced by all who work at Gore.
Bill Gore, one of the company’s founders, often spoke of the importance of freedom and dreams when he talked about what would make his company successful. He wanted people to experience freedom in the workplace—which he characterized as a minimum of rules, regulations, and bureaucracy. If freedom was in place, then people would be able to pursue their dreams. And dreams are what would enable people to accomplish great things. This was Bill Gore’s wisdom. It is a very simple equation that he followed and it enabled him to lead a good life. And he believed that freedom and dreams could help the organization to be successful—to live a good life as an organization—as well.
Yet how do you create and lead in an organization based on this kind of deep wisdom?
A number of practical steps were taken at Gore to help the company follow the wisdom of its founders. To support the idea of freedom, bureaucracy is at a minimum, and any visible evidence of hierarchy is squashed. People are on a first-name basis with each other, most work units are kept below two hundred so all unit members can know each other, and people are free to ask for help from whomever they think will be the best resource. These aspects of the structure of Gore’s workplace are practical in the sense that they can be seen and experienced by people on a daily basis, not because they are practices in place in lots of other companies.
Associates ability to determine who they will choose to follow was documented as a tremendous strength of the organization. Practical wisdom is evident in this system as well—it works for the organization and has contributed greatly to the success of the business. Yet for people who are not familiar with Gore’s culture or perhaps are afraid of the freedom inherent in this act of choice, seeing the practical wisdom in this step can be difficult. Their vision is blurred by the uniqueness of the activity. Yet it works for Gore, and this is one of the ways we can find evidence of wisdom—in a willingness to search for what works rather than follow a predefined path.
Rather than accepting uncertainty about whether a leader-follower relationship will be smooth, the practical wisdom applied at Gore ensures that followers are able to choose the people whom they want to follow, thus eliminating that uncertainty. This allows people to move forward together and tackle opportunities that might otherwise be missed due to inefficiencies created by weak relationships. Where did the wisdom for this arrangement come from? Initially, from the mind of Bill Gore-then as people tried it and it worked, it spread to collective success throughout the organization. Applied wisdom helped people move away from the uncertainty of leader—follower relationships to the opportunity provided by strong teams of smart, competent people working well together.
Let’s go back to Bill Gore’s wisdom. He wanted people to experience freedom so that they could pursue their dreams. He believed that great things would be accomplished if people had great expectations, and that the way to nurture that is to dream. He believed that when people think small they get bogged down in details; he wanted people to think big. To support this, he and others designed a number of structural elements and practices for the company that would lead them to their profound goal. Michael Pacanowsky, a longtime Gore associate, said, “Without being arrogant, Bill was very confident in what he brought to the enterprise, as were others. They believed that if the dream captivated them, they could figure out a way to make it happen.”
These beliefs are all a part of Bill Gore’s legacy to the company that bears his name. That company is very different now from the way it was during those early years. There are nine thousand associates around the world in thirty countries, and a variety of products being used in many industries that didn’t exist when the company was founded. The uncertainty-opportunity continuum faced by Gore’s leaders and associates is similar to the one faced earlier, but it has been magnified tremendously. There are many more opportunities available to consider, there is much more uncertainty in the marketplace, and there is a greater need for deep wisdom to guide the organization forward. So how do the leaders at Gore continue to develop and pass on wisdom in such a way that freedom and dreams can continue to flourish?
One way this happens at Gore is through the process of asking people to make commitments. Just as associate’s are asked to choose who they want to follow, they are also asked to choose their projects. The choice of a project to work on is part of the process of having the freedom to dream. Underlying wisdom guides the action and moves an associate, in this first act, from the uncertainty of not knowing what he or she is going to work on to the freedom of choice and the experience of making a commitment. The opportunity on the other side is the dream that emerges from the choices the associate nukes.
THE TRUSTWORTHY LEADER
AUTHOR: Amy Lyman
PUBLISHER: Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint
PRICE: $27.95 U.S.
Reprinted by permission of Wiley India; from The Trustworthy Leader by Amy Lyman. Copyright 2012.