DURING AN INTERVIEW IN THE summer of 1982, Bill Gore, founder of W.L. Gore & Associates Inc., now well known for its Gore-tex products, taught me a new way of looking at corporate life.
I had just volunteered my own view of the corporation as an unavoidable hierarchy of authority, in which the people at the top conjured up commands and then passed them down through ever-broadening layers of middle management. It was a heartless pyramid, I said, insensitive to human values. Bill sighed and said it was too often true, but not unavoidable. In fact, his own considerable success had come from turning my theory upside down, literally placing last things first.
So it is that the idea behind W. L. Gore begins with its plain folk and proceeds outward as a true collaboration of individual effort. Bill called it a "lattice" organization. There were no titles and no bosses in the conventional sense. Each "associate" dealt one-on-one with other associates in a shifting pattern of cross-hatching intersections, which gave this process its name. There were no commands, either. They had been replaced by personal "commitments." Associates were expected to manage themselves even to the point of identifying on their own those" opportunities" that best suited their individual talents and interests. In effect, Bill had replaced the common corporate condition of paranoia and punishment with respect and trust to create a community that could release the creative instincts of its members. "It's much better to use friendship and love than slavery and whips," Bill said. "The results will always be much better."
His own success proved his point. Since 1958, when he and his wife, Vieve, started the company in the basement of their house, the company has grown to roughly $300 million in revenues and 4,200 associates in 29 plants throughout the world. And, in time, Bill himself was routinely lauded as one of the country's leading contributors to the art and science of management. He became something of an institution in his own right, and although this always surprised him, it was easy to think that he would, indeed, be around forever. He had that sort of creased and weathered exterior from frequent, long treks in the outdoors that suggested a longevity usually reserved for mountain chains. Perhaps this is the reason that it is so difficult now to accept his mortality.
On July 26, 1986, Bill Gore died of a heart attack while hiking in the Wind River Range of Wyoming with his wife and several grandchildren. He was 74 years old. Only moments earlier, he had stopped on the trail to explain to the children how it was he knew that a bear had turned over a nearby rock. More than anything else, that impulse is the signature of an unusually instructive life. It was Bill's abiding gift that he always found time to teach those who knew less. I am privileged to count myself among them.