When you hear W. L. Gore and Associates' origin story, it sounds very Silicon Valley: a couple of entrepreneurs in their basement, determined to make a breakthrough. But instead of 21st-century California, this was Sputnik-era Delaware. Bill Gore was a materials scientist at DuPont who saw broad applications for a fluoro­polymer called polytetrafluoro­ethylene (PTFE)--used to make Teflon. When DuPont didn't seem as excited about these applications as Bill and his wife, Vieve, were, the couple raided their savings in 1958 to start their own company. 

Together with their son, Bob, they created unique technologies across more than 15 industries. You might be wearing one of Bob's: ePTFE (expanded PTFE), which led to Gore-Tex, the waterproof fabric that reinvented outerwear.

The Gores also created a corporate culture in which anyone can take the lead, there are no organizational charts, and people collaborate in teams, rather than compete for the corner office.

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"You can't fake this stuff," says Jason Field, just the fifth CEO in the company's history. "If you say you want to empower people to make decisions, you can't revert to top-down decision making if things get tough."

Field was a large-animal veteri­narian before joining Gore's medical-device team, and quickly realized he was part of an unusual organization.

In structuring their company, the Gores were more inspired by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow and Douglas McGregor's management theories than by, say, Peter Drucker's. It's a bottom-up approach that com­panies often talk about, but few execute well.

Gore remains innovation-focused and market-agnostic. More than 45 million medical valves, stents, sutures, and other devices it created are walking around inside people. It makes vents for smartphones and materials for the Mars rovers. Today, the Newark, Delaware-based company has 10,000 employees worldwide and $3.5 billion in revenue.

The Gore culture is sort of a lateral ecosystem. Leaders aren't appointed; they create "followerships." Anyone can pursue an idea and persuade others to join. Employees build "lattice" networks, connecting with others across divisions, to encourage the flow of knowledge and ideas. Compensation--most of the company is owned by employees--is decided by a panel of peers. Associates use "dabble time" to create products that don't yet have a market, as was the case for mercury filters for industrial plants, developed long before regulation demanded them.

"Going forward, the strategic differentiator is going to be the ability to learn faster, and at higher quality, than the competition," says Edward D. Hess, a professor at University of Virginia's Darden School of Business and co-author of Humility Is the New Smart. "Gore has been working on this since they started."

Which means it has no need to explain "dabble time" to Wall Street. "It allows us to consistently take a long-term view," says Field. "We leverage that every single day."