The future of open leadership

ObeyWith the Feed Icon Trademark debate, I’ve become fascinated by a number of Mitchell Baker‘s recent posts on open source leadership (or perhaps more appropriately community stewardship).

Just last night we held our second coworking meeting to discuss a number of topics (of which we were able to plow through very few)… Key among them was the question of how to best open up the space for non-anchors while not overly burdening the existing key-holders. And, in opening up the space, how to we set a fair pay-for-the-time-you-use rate that doesn’t burden the project with excessive overhead or rules.

After an exhausting discussion for over an hour and a half, we had to adjourn the meeting following Brad’s Snooze Button Guideline. We covered quite a number of possibilities, from hourly rates to hosting quarterly “supporters”, but ultimately ended up without a final resolution other than to submit proposals to the mailing list for continued debate.

Here’s what’s strange about it: throughout the meeting (I can’t be sure but…) I did feel like I was sitting in the role of facilitator — not exactly the leader, but close enough. I mean, that’s a pretty common role to play, right? Most meetings need a leader of sorts, right?

So now the question that I have is, or perhaps what I’m most confused about, is what kind of leadership does the coworking project need? What kind can it stand? I agree with Mitchell that relying on the “community to decide” will moreoften than not result in disappointment or frustration for communities actually don’t decide anything, they only appear to make decisions. And yet, there is this apparent allergy in open source communities that forces the subversion of the ego and the consequent vilification of those who attempt to make a decision on behalf of the group.

Ian responds to Mitchell:

Good leaders do not make decisions – they simply help the community to make better decisions. To do this they listen well, and they think long and hard. Then, when they see the prevailing wisdom surface, they communicate those decisions more fruitfully.

…which sounds pretty good and egalitarian on the surface. In fact, not a bit unlike what they call representative government. And yet, I think that that only captures a fraction of what a leader, in the community context, really does.

It is my belief that good, reflective and responsive leadership is needed for any project to find success. But that leadership need not be hierarchical. Or dominant. Or, most of all, exclusively masculine. And it also can’t be cowardly or cow-tow to the imposing and voluminous voice of the community it serves. That’s why leadership is important; it’s not about power, it’s about clarity of purpose and of seeing things through to their desired conclusion, deterring that which threatens to scuttle the intentions of the group.

Case in point, the witch-hunt that O’Reilly recently survived suggests that communities can easily be turned into echo chambers for groupthink and channeled hostility. Without strong leadership, you’re liable to end up with a neverending succession of teapot tempests without accomplishing anything productive.

So, coming back to the meeting last night, we have goals in common, even if the path is not clear. Which is precisely the kind of opportunity in which leadership emerges — the kind that isn’t focused in any one individual but is shared among the individuals in the collective. In a very real sense, it is the BarCamp model of leadership, of self-determination, of personal responsibility and of realizing your own role in consciously creating circumstances for yourself.

The point is this: open source leadership is not a contradiction, it’s just deeply misunderstood. And it seems high time that, as we open up to serving wider markets and communities, that we learn what it really means to embrace a kind of leadership that does not rely on traditional concentrations of power or of exclusivity or malevolent competition, but instead works to helps us each reach beyond ourselves to reveal each our own potentials. I don’t know clearly what it looks like, but I do think that Mitchell is on to something and that somehow, this little coworking experiment of ours might bring us steps closer to discovering just how open, modern leadership will actually bring us forward.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: (YC W18), Uber, Google.

8 thoughts on “The future of open leadership”

  1. This stuff is right on target. One model that comes to mind is using Open Space Technology when it is clear that the issues are too complex or ill-defined to make real step-wise progress. Allowing all of the pespectives to percolate organically until some the steam is let off in a natural way sort of speeds the process to uncovering the underlying structure. Kind of like putting the sidewalks in the places where the grass is worn down.

    Open Space seems to work great for self-facilitation, and is useful for big-rock issues like the ones you are currently tackling. After the sidewalks are in place, you can probably get some good mileage out of them, but will occasionally need to bulldoze them with another Open Space meeting to notice new traffic patterns.

    Hope the analogy conveys sufficiently. Obviously, BarCamp and unconferences work on a similar model. It’s not anarchy, but omniarchy.

    Another model that looks interesting, but I haven’t studied sufficiently is Holacracy. It looks a bit cumbersome. Nobody wants to learn a new Roberts Rules of Order, but maybe this isn’t so hard.

    I have another metaphor that is really useful for me: Did you ever try to ride a bike with two people who are both steering? The result is a bit chaotic, as each is responding the the place where they are used to having the center of gravity, but with two people on the bike, the center of gravity is between them, meaning the lean to turn ratio is different. It usually works better to trust one person to steer in those cases, which is why hierarchy works so well. In a situation in which everyone is steering, the center of gravity is shifting and not in anyone’s gut. Open Space, or something like it looks like a great way to emerge collaborative steering.

    – David

  2. I don’t see what is so different between open source leadership and plain ole good leadership other than the new roles that are required for managing the unique tasks. You may need a distinction of semantics for a given group of people to respond more positively, but good leadership is not dictatorial in nature, though it could be in certain circumstances. If you can find some time, study some of the classics on leadership and you will find more of this – we don’t need to reinvent the wheel when so much has been done previously.

    On a separate note, I don’t know that you can accurately claim and take credit for a “BarCamp model of leadership” given that Open Space has been in use for decades ( and that BarCamp’s use of the format was borrowed (or inspired) from Foo Camp. While it certainly has successfully been applied all over the world with BarCamp and you are deserving of some credit for it, I again say that it is simply good leadership you are referencing, not anything new that has been recently invented. That aside, I think what you are really looking for in this inquiry is this: leadership can be ephemeral, moving from person to person around the group (ala talking sticks and other methods) with each person becoming a leader as they share with the group. Hosting conversations as we both do, this is the primary driver of the current day phenomenon – that everyone can be a leader, if only for a short while, when the group is focused on listening to them. That is a form of good leadership, but so is making a tie-breaking decision on a 50-50 vote in which not everyone will be pleased with your choice. We want to model and encourage more emergent leadership in this way, because this experience of leadership will lead to broader self-empowerment and I think, a stronger society. It is the experience one has when seeing good leadership in action that provides the possibility for growth and that does not happen nearly enough in the world today.

    Within my study of open space and hosting conversations I have found that the agreed upon structure of the gathering is where constraints can be used to move to some sort of closure – but someone must be the benevolent facilitator/leader to keep people moving within the agreed upon framework/structure. In a very real sense, the actions that need to be performed (such as closing debate on a given issue to move on to the next) are not as important as the intentions with which they are performed. ie, you are not being an ogre for needing to cut off someone who is repeating the same thing over and over again, you are looking out for the best interests of the group – at least insofar as the intentions are not about shutting out someone to keep power for yourself, but the intentions are that of leading the group to its stated outcomes.

    If you are just leading an ever growing conversation without getting to its conclusion or the desired outcome, that is not leadership, that is hanging out shooting the sh!t – it seems to be the same problem that the democrats have unfortunately embraced for too long. The structures for operating a representative style government is based on this, but they include limits as well. While one party may misuse those limits/rules to serve their own interests for power, that was not the original purpose of the design. Open participation in a community process is terrific, but in the end, the community has needs for things getting done and that is paramount.

    As we all gain more experience with the process of “moving from me to we”, this view of good leadership will become clearer – leadership is still needed and it should not be wed to the common perceptions of greed, mistrust and abuse of power as I some people are trying to do. Because some bad leaders have misplaced our collective trust is not a reason to throw out the principles of good leadership and start your own movement and buzzwords. Discussing the applicability of leadership principles to community driven projects however, is a very worthwhile discussion and I will enjoy reading more of that from Mitchell’s perspective.

    – Chris Heuer – cross posted to

  3. I don’t think that I’m inventing anything new — or really trying to come up with new buzzwords… I’m trying to find clarity.

    And I appreciate that the things that I’m facing — or any of us — are not new, historically. But for us, as individuals, these are new issues. And if open space has lessons to offer, then fabulous, that’s what I’m lookin’ for!

    I do think that the notion of decentralized leadership has to be further explored, especially on an international level. Open source has much to teach us, but also much to learn, about this and I’m just beginning to dig below the surface on this.

  4. Word up, Chris.

    One thing to keep in mind is the distinction between leadership and management, between sheparding and directing. Leadership entails orders of magnitude of responsibility. It also tends to turn somewhat on your ability to reach past where the current dialogue is at and move things forward (you can’t lead from the middle of the pack). It also tends to turn on your ability to build trust and to be occasionally inspirational.

    Keep working at it; you’ll do pretty good.

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