In 1958, Wilbert Gore and his wife Genevieve started an insulated cable company, W.L. Gore, from the basement of their Delaware home. Sixty years later, the basement business has grown into a multinational (but still privately owned) corporation, with products used to power cities and space suits.
Shortly after starting the business — best known for its waterproof GORE-TEX fabric — Gore said he wanted to build a company that “would foster self-fulfillment and which would multiply the capabilities of the individuals comprising it beyond their mere sum.”
In other words, freedom is at the heart of W.L. Gore’s cultural principles, explained MIT Sloan lecturerFreedom doesn’t mean permission to do whatever Gore employees want, but rather (as stated in the company’s guiding principles) for Gore employees to help one another grow as leaders.
W.L. Gore is what Isaacs and MIT Sloan professor of leadership call a nimble organization, a company filled with people who feel it is their job to lead and to step forward, propose new ideas, and translate them into action.
Isaacs, Ancona, and co-researcher Elaine Backman have identified three leadership types that drive how nimble organizations operate: entrepreneurial, enabling, and architecting.
Here’s a closer look at these three types and how they contribute to a culture that encourages the freedom to grow as a leader at every level of an organization:
Entrepreneurial leaders thrive within the lower to mid-levels of an organization, where strategic mindsets are needed for generating ideas that tie into the firm’s overarching strategy (e.g., a new product, a new human resources policy, an operational change).
Effective entrepreneurial leaders inspire trust through technical expertise and reputational credibility, which they earn by demonstrating that they have the best interests of their colleagues, employees, and customers at heart.
Reputational credibility is earned in part “through repeatedly acting in alignment with the cultural values of the organization and by helping to develop other people,” Isaacs said. “This is how you become a leader — by becoming someone that other people want to follow.”
The way entrepreneurial leaders succeed in their roles is through the formation of X-teams. These adaptive, externally focused teams “manage both within and across boundaries, making sense of a changing world, lobbying for resources and getting buy-in for their ideas and linking to other groups inside and outside the company,” Ancona said.
Nimble organizations hire people with entrepreneurial mindsets, but they also train people to get them “culturally acclimated” to the expectation that they step forward and promote ideas, Isaacs said.
Enabling leaders are predominantly positioned in the middle of a company’s hierarchy. They enable entrepreneurial leaders by supporting them directly and removing obstacles that stand in the way of success.
Enabling leaders communicate to individual employees as well as teams the top-level purpose of the nimble organization, its strategic goals, and how individual roles and work connect to those goals and overarching purpose.
Enabling leaders don’t tell an employee what to do, instead they coach by asking questions: Who do you think are the best people to talk with to make progress on your idea? How do you think customers will react to this? What kind of customer research have you done?
And enabling leaders, through their own networks and sensemaking, connect likeminded groups working on similar initiatives. If Group A is developing a widget and it needs a particular piece, and Group B has that piece — unbeknownst to Group A — the enabling leader will connect the two groups.
“What you don’t want in an organization is five teams sucking up resources, all working on the same thing, in complete isolation,” Isaacs said.
For example, a decision-making bottleneck was at the heart of a problem for a Northeast hospital system Isaacs was advising in early 2020.
As the pandemic increased in severity and scope, the hospital system needed a fast way to review and approve personal protective devices proposed by its product innovation and supply chain sourcing teams. The typical review cycle for new products was about two years — time that the hospital didn’t have.
Innovation teams had two problems: They encountered roadblocks and resistance from stakeholders late in the innovation cycle, and could not get fast enough approval from senior management to keep on pace with their goals.
The validation teams — enabling leaders in this model — joined the product innovation teams, and advised them on how to gather stakeholder feedback earlier in the process, and identify potential validation bottlenecks before they happened. They also worked on prioritizing products in the entire innovation portfolio, and worked with senior leaders to set high-level goals that could help direct resources and attention to the innovation teams where they were most needed.
Architecting leaders are generally at the top level of organizational leadership — whether a team, a unit, or an entire company. They shape culture and structure (who is in what role), how teams are set up, what practices are in place, what values the organization stands for, and its guiding purpose and strategic priorities.
When Alan Mulally, SM ’82, joined Ford Motor Company in 2006 as CEO, the car manufacturer was going through its worst year ever. Early into his tenure, Mulally learned about an old company ad from 1925, illustrating Henry Ford’s original vision of “opening the highways to all mankind.”
The historic vision served as inspiration for Ford’s future and financial rebound. Around the same time, Mulally also introduced the One Ford initiative, which outlined the company’s purpose, plan, and goals for the future. He had double-sided cards printed for employees to carry in their wallets. On one side was the One Ford plan. On the other side was a list of employee expectations (e.g., having passion for Ford’s business and customers; being a team player; improving quality, safety, and sustainability; holding oneself and others responsible and accountable for customer satisfaction).
“In a lot of companies the purpose becomes a motto on the wall, it's not really lived, it’s just lip service,” Isaacs said during an MIT Sloan Executive Education webinar on nimble leadership. “In nimble organizations. they are good at bringing the purpose down off the wall and into the water, into daily decision-making.”
Architecting leaders also enable their whole organization to take on what Ancona calls a sensemaking role — reaching out to customers as well as frontline employees, and bringing those insights back and figuring out what to do with them.
And architecting leaders establish and maintain an organization’s balance between focus and freedom. Employees in a nimble organization should all be working and moving in the same purposeful direction.
Companies want engaged employees working to advance high-level goals, according to the researchers. The difference between nimble and command-and-control leadership is that architecting leaders won’t force employees to focus on a particular task or project.
Instead, they create a safe space of two-way dialogue where employees feel empowered, enabled, and equipped to lead and create new things, according to Isaacs and Ancona. Daily decision-making is guided by the organization’s culture, values, and strategy, so the organization as a whole can sense and seize new opportunities in the marketplace.