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How “intersectional leadership skills” harness trust as the currency of collaboration

Wherever businesses are a powerful force for society, successful leaders embrace the “mission mindset” of shared purpose.
A group of people collaborating and showcasing trust as they sit together on a rope, against a captivating black background.
Josh Calabrese / Unsplash
Key Takeaways
  • The “venture meets mission” ecosystem demands a broader social perspective on innovation and shared prosperity.
  • The leadership skills required for this ecosystem emerge from experience at the interface of public and private.
  • The story of former Marine turned ambassador, Nate Fick, captures the trust-building value of intersectional thinking.
Excerpted from Venture Meets Mission: Aligning People, Purpose, and Profit to Innovate and Transform Society published by Stanford Business Books ©2024 by Arun Gupta, Gerard George, and Thomas Fewer, All Rights Reserved.

Leadership is a process of applying social influence to maximize the efforts of others for achieving a common goal. Intersectionality is often used to describe the relationships between individuals and social categories (such as generation, occupation, nationality), and concepts that fall into more than one category. In the “Venture Meets Mission” ecosystem, leadership skills emerge from experience in operating at the interface of public and private, first, through developing a working knowledge of how to operate and succeed in both environments, and second, through understanding the differences in motivating and influencing in very different contexts. To thrive in a mission ecosystem, we need to develop a new set of intersectional leadership skills. 

In the summer of 1998, following his junior year at Dartmouth University, Nate Fick attended the United States Marine Corps Officer Candidates School and was commissioned as second lieutenant upon graduating. The Baltimore native then became an officer in the Amphibious Ready Group of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, training with the Australian Army for humanitarian operations deployment to East Timor. However, following the September 11 attacks in 2001, Nate led his platoon into Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom and eventually, in 2003, into Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

“I was really unsure of what I was going to do after serving,” says Nate. “As I thought about my military experience, I found that I liked building and leading teams. And I wanted to find a way to keep doing that. So, I went to business school. And candidly, I went to business school because it seemed like a socially acceptable way to tread water and figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.” He used the GI Bill to attend Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School. Nate recounts his experience: “I had this nontraditional back- ground. I was a classics major and an infantry officer, I could not build a financial model in my life. I found myself sitting there, in business school, surrounded by all these kids that came out of Goldman and McKinsey. It was a totally eye-opening experience. I loved it in hindsight.” 

Nate goes on to say, “The most valuable thing that I got out of business school was, when things were really hard running a business, and it felt like everything was falling apart, I never once laid in bed at night staring at the ceiling thinking, ‘If only I had an MBA I would know what to do.’ And I don’t mean that to be faint praise—I think, actually the sort of self-confidence that comes with saying ‘Hey, I’ve been exposed to a bunch of situations via the “case method” [a learning system]. I’ve seen a lot of stuff vicariously and, sometimes, this is just hard.’ That really helped me, more than anything.” In case you need even more reason to be impressed with Nate, he also wrote a New York Times bestseller, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer

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After business school, Nate was recruited to a nonprofit organization that helps develop national security and defense policies, CNAS, but the decision was not understood by most of his business school classmates who were pursuing traditional banking and consulting jobs. He says, “As a leader, it was a terrific training ground. Because in for-profit companies, you have the resources to motivate people with stock options, cash, and all kinds of stuff. But in the nonprofit, all you have is mission, vision, values, and culture. That’s all you got. And there are no shortcuts. My dad used to tell me, ‘You can’t take the elevator, you have to take the stairs,’ and I feel like that’s an important message, in nonprofit management you’re walking up the freakin’ stairs.” 

Years later, Nate started working in for-profit, mission-oriented organizations such as Endgame. He served as the CEO of a cybersecurity software company from 2012 through its acquisition in 2019. Nate recalls the importance of his journey. “That was the arc of how I got here. Military leadership, nonprofit leadership, venture and private-equity-backed leadership. And all the while a focus on mission and technology. And what did I learn? They’re all the same in a lot of ways—they’re all human organizations looking for the same things. I learned that businesses can be a powerful force for society.” 

In September 2022, he was sworn in as the U.S. State Department’s first Ambassador at Large for Cyberspace and Digital Policy. Reflecting upon his experiences and achievements, Nate says, “My career only made sense looking backwards, it didn’t make sense looking forwards.” 

Having a mission mindset means that you understand that all players in this eco-system have a similar purpose—a larger mission.

Nate’s story highlights the importance of “leadership at the intersectionality.” It means having a mission mindset, above all else. Having a mission mindset means that you understand that all players in this eco-system have a similar purpose—a larger mission. At the same time, it means that you realize the differences in goals and incentives of various players in the ecosystem. Government agencies, businesses, academic institutions, and the individuals that make up these groups all have varying preferences for risk and different incentives for taking risks. This shapes the different goals of each of these groups, whether to safely promote the public good, to invest in innovation, to train tomorrow’s leaders, or to provide for a family. A leader in this ecosystem recognizes how to advance the interests of each of these groups without compromising the well-being of any of them or the mission at large. Forming this bridge helps address some of the incentive uncertainty in motivating mission-driven action. 

Nate Fick’s leadership experience also highlights a different role—one of a translator and facilitator. Experts in the government-venture arrangements frequently remark that traditional public-private partnership models constrain the players from fully capturing the plurality of relationships that can occur in the Venture Meets Mission ecosystem. Whereas traditional public-private partnerships see bilateral coordination between the business and the government, the Venture Meets Mission ecosystem brings together multiple groups in pursuit of one mission: government agencies, nonprofits, ventures, investment funds, and academic institutions. Nate’s journey through all of these institutions enables him to have a “leg up” in understanding the challenges they face when working together. Becoming a leader in the intersection of government and venture can aid in learning and developing the communication practices of their relationship, a key feature in overcoming some of the process uncertainties of government-venture arrangements. 

Finally, Nate Fick embodies the values of intersectional thinking. Trust reduces the risk and costs of partnering, and it increases a willingness to act and to act in good faith. Trust maintains a focus and commitment to agreed-upon goals and outcomes. Nate’s realization of the partnership among the various parties, all supporting one larger mission, accents the importance of building strong bridges among these groups to provide a foundation for trust. Trust is the currency of collaboration. Intersectional leadership skills that elevate common objectives and harmonize values will build this trust.

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