4 Lessons on Leadership

It has been just over one year since I took on a commitment with the Consumer Fabrics North American marketing team at W.L. Gore & Associates. If you’re a student of management practices, you’ve probably read about how Gore is an organization with a unique culture and a different approach to organizational structure and leadership.

As is often the case with experience, I’ve learned more about leadership in one year in my new role than I did in the years before. It was 10 years ago that I first learned about W.L. Gore through various mentions in management courses at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Here are the top 4 lessons I’ve learned after one year of being part of the organization.

Leaders Build Relationships. 

Most corporate organizations have advanced and complex processes and organizational structures. While these help create consistency in management practices, I’ve come to learn that they can sometimes have the unintended consequence of ‘covering up’ for managers and leaders with poor relational skills. The rank and file team members may not know what to call it when this happens. Most just talk about “bad bosses.”

At W.L. Gore, I’ve learned that relationships matter—initiating, connecting, getting to know each other, and maintaining relationships. In his book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” Patrick Lencioni calls this “invulnerability” and places it as the foundation of building trust. As Lencioni points out, the word “trust” is commonly misused and misunderstood. It’s not about confidence in someone’s ability to deliver (though that is important) but, rather, about two human beings connecting at a personal level.

When people are known at a personal level, they spend less time protecting their own ego or self-esteem, and can then move on to the important project or other work-related challenges. I have found that invulnerability creates a positive foundation on which to work through the everyday conflicts, challenges and issues that are inevitable in any team environment. The hardest part of working through work-related conflicts is keeping a solid foot on the “assumption of good intent”—that is, when disagreement or conflict happens, whatever happened, it was out of good intent. Knowing someone personally and outside of work makes all the difference.

The great thing about building relationships is that you don’t have to be an extrovert or “social butterfly,” though of course that makes it easier. All it takes is a willingness to set aside work and deadlines and ask normal, human questions.

Global organizations have the additional challenge of learning to build these interpersonal relationships within the context of different cultures. As someone who grew up in Central America and is of Cuban heritage, I can tell you that not all cultures approach relationship building in the same way. Especially in work environments, it is important to understand that each culture has different “rules of engagement.” The great thing is that we’re all humans; we all have our own personal relationships (marriage, children, family, etc.), and we all have similar aspirations, fears, joys and pains. I’m working at understanding my international teammates and taking steps to connect at a human level.

Whether it is through team happy hours (where hopefully it’s quiet enough for conversation), team-building activities, lunch hour meetings, or short occasional phone calls, I’m learning to take the time to connect and ask about family, vacations, and hobbies. It’s amazing what I’ve discovered about many co-workers through casual conversations. And as a result of these stronger interpersonal relationship, I’m able to see trust that results in openness, better sharing of information, and a willingness to work together towards results.

Leaders Seek to Understand.

This has been my go-to phrase for the last year. It has proved to be a lot more profound than I realized when I first heard it or when it was suggested as advice for developing stronger leadership. Within this phrase, there is a required humility to admit one does not understand. It is an empowering phrase. It has helped me stay focused on being part of the solution. In a world where one is not supposed to “show weakness,” it is empowering to have the courage and freedom to say, “I’d like to understand,” as a way to start a discussion.

This phrase helps lower defensive reflexes in a corporate environment. Whether it is used to start a feedback session around a proposal or to initiate a conflict-resolution conversation, seeking to understand will help you stay focused on understanding the situation before letting preconceptions take over. When it is built on interpersonal relationships, the use of this phrase allows a team to stay focused on the objective and avoid getting sidetracked with hurt feelings or interpersonal conflict. Hurt feelings or interpersonal conflict will happen anyway, but I have made this phrase a regular part of my vocabulary and have noticed the difference—better understanding of the other person’s perspective, and a more effective leadership approach.

Leaders Help Others.

For years, I’ve been studying and practicing situational leadership. When I say situational leadership, I’m not talking about the leadership theory developed by Paul Hersey, professor and author of the book “The Situational Leader,” and Ken Blanchard, leadership guru and author of “The One Minute Manager.”

What I’m referring to is the act of being a leader in any given situation, regardless of titles or defined (or undefined) authority. Situational leadership needs to be about being willing to say, “How can I help you succeed?” There is always a place for directive leadership, but most of the times, being able to listen and identify opportunities to help your team succeed is essential to effective leadership. Effective leaders empower their teams to get things done, and find ways to go to bat for their team members.

It is no secret that W.L. Gore has long practiced a flat, lattice-based organization without chains of command. Here is what the Gore.com website says:

Since Bill Gore founded the company in 1958, Gore has been a team-based, flat lattice organization that fosters personal initiative. There are no traditional organizational charts, no chains of command, nor predetermined channels of communication.

Instead, we communicate directly with each other and are accountable to fellow members of our multi-disciplined teams. We encourage hands-on innovation, involving those closest to a project in decision making. Teams organize around opportunities and leaders emerge. This unique kind of corporate structure has proven to be a significant contributor to associate satisfaction and retention.

After one year of working in this culture, I’ve learned that the first step to being a leader is a willingness to step up while not imposing my own approach on a situation.

Leadership works best when I’m willing to either stay behind the scenes or step up to the front if requested by others on the team. Not everyone wants to be on the driver’s seat, and that’s ok. But I’ve learned that, if you want to grow as a leader, you will need to be willing to jump in or step up.

Leaders Keep Learning. 

Part of what makes a strong culture strong is when leaders are given the freedom to continue to grow and develop. From being able to connect to other leaders in the organization, to being able develop greater depth in your industry, leadership is most effective when it is in continual growth. As I’ve discovered, continual learning has the secondary benefit of being a great motivator.

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” 
― Harry S. Truman

To summarize, a leader is most effective when he or she strives to connect with people at a human level, seeks out and builds relationships across the organization, seeks to understand before making touch decisions or passing judgment on a situation, and then stays focused on helping team members succeed.

Effective leadership is certainly not limited to these, but practicing these 4 concepts will certainly go a long way to make me a better leader.

What has been your biggest leadership lesson this year? What are you doing to make yourself a more effective leader in your organization this year?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *