June 26, 2006

on Leadership - roles around the May Pole

Some blogs over in the Mozilla camp are talking about leadership. The thrust of the debate seems to be that it would be nice if we could add a dash of it into open source communities. Sure would, but other than it being nice if it was Christmas every day, what is this really about?

Part of the problem with leadership resolves around what it means. I'll declare my colours up front - if you said that leadership was simply a journo-term for something we don't understand, I wouldn't be arguing strongly with you. There is massive amounts of confusion about it, and we should start by stating that what we don't know about leadership is ... almost everything. Here's what John Kotter, perhaps the world's leading academic on leadership, says:

People are put into leadership positions and Ďmagicallyí expected to know how to be a leader. Sometimes certifications, such as an MBA or CA are assumed to infer leadership ability. While there are certainly valid assets to these qualifications, they donít teach you how to be a leader. You canít learn that in a classroom. You can only learn that in the trenches, emulating others, trying things, and making mistakes as you go. Unfortunately, many of the role models are autocrats, and there is rarely a regular, formal measurement system for leadership. So leaders are left on their own to create their own self-perceptions of their effectiveness.

Kotter wrote two highly influential articles called What do leaders do? and What do managers do? You should look them up in HBR and read them, for many reasons. Here's an example from FactoryJoe (right before he called me egalitarian?!) on what people do:

Hereís whatís strange about it: throughout the meeting (I canít be sure butÖ) I did feel like I was sitting in the role of facilitator ó not exactly the leader, but close enough. I mean, thatís a pretty common role to play, right? Most meetings need a leader of sorts, right?

Facilitator, definately, that's a key role. But leader? Of a meeting? No, not quite, a faciliatator is a totally normal and necessary process in a meeting. Here's why:

When groups come together and get into the conquering of some grand plan, many roles emerge. A facilitator is one, but there are others. Some research has it that there are 8 or 9 roles, and curiously the most effective teams are with 4 people, where each person plays 2 roles! That research (Belbin) does not identify leadership per se, but it does identify a role that might be traditionally associated: the Chair. This is the person who rules and overrules, keeps the agenda, etc on track.

However that Chair person is not the leader -- a good leader writes themselves out of the forefront role if they can, and will if there is a better person to play that role. In fact, some other research has indicated that a good leader is the person who doesn't do what the others are good at doing, but instead picks out the roles that are missing. So they may play the facilitator today, but in tomorrow's meeting they may be acting as the architect, whereas yesterday they were pushing the tea trolley.

Which leads us to another observation - there can be many leaders, and leadership is not a monopoly.


There might be a manager responsible for a department, but that doesn't mean that his department can't be full of leaders. And what do these leaders do, when not being boss of a department, or being bossed by a bossy boss? Not lead? Well, of course not -- they lead by shifting to other roles and other capabilities, by identifying what's missing, how to get the solution to what's missing, and trying to juggle the factors to make that happen (where, factors include self). It's a bit like that complicated dance around the May Pole, everything keeps shifting, in a merry dance, but that's because the dancers know that the end result is important, not the position they play.

( So, for example, check out the Mitchell posts. In brief but rude terms - 1. some decision lacks are killing us. 2. here's what we are limited to. 3. here's what we should be doing ... each one successively pushing closer to what those decisions should be based on. Not because Mitchel likes to write, but because there is a lack of foundation in what to do. Or, when Frank says that he believes he can list the things that make leadership work, the interesting thing is not whether he's right or whether I'm wrong in saying it can't be done ... rather it is the fact that it is needed, so someone is doing it! )

Tomorrow, I'll post on communications, if someone reminds me.

Posted by iang at June 26, 2006 07:12 PM | TrackBack
Comments

Ah, that's an interesting point. You're right, I shouldn't confuse one instance of facilitation with general leadership.

At the same time, playing many roles, one of which includes facilitation, leads me to sense perhaps "acts of leadership" -- when, taken in aggregate, do constitute leadership, spread out over time.

Perhaps I need new visuals for what I think of as leadership -- since in school we were taught that leadership was George Washington crossing the Potomac on that boat looking all regal and set apart from anyone else.

Real leadership, or leadership in open source communities, has to be able to inspiring and teasing out the best in others and, as you said, filling the jobs that no one else seems willing or able to take.

I do also think that there's a relationship between forward vision and leadership, though one does not necessary beget the other.

I wonder, given your experiences, what you consider the best examples of open source leadership that you've experienced... or perhaps the worst?

Posted by: Chris Messina at June 26, 2006 01:25 PM

> At the same time, playing many roles, one of which includes facilitation, leads me to sense perhaps "acts of leadership" -- when, taken in aggregate, do constitute leadership, spread out over time.

That's it! You got it!

> Real leadership, or leadership in open source communities, has to be able to inspiring and teasing out the best in others and, as you said, filling the jobs that no one else seems willing or able to take.

I don't know whether open source leadership needs to inspire and tease. For the most part, once someone is "in" they bring their own inspiration. I just don't know there, I sometimes suspect the inspiration role is much overdone?

> I do also think that there's a relationship between forward vision and leadership, though one does not necessary beget the other.

There is, but this is a correlation not a causality. There is no reason why someone else can't do the forward vision -- and rely on others to understand that and communicate it. You often find that great plans were invented by lowly staffers, only to be adopted by the high-ups.

The reason that the leaders often have the forward vision is that they are spread broad and communicate incessently, so they can bring things together in their own mind. But anyone can do that, if they have the time and breadth!

Posted by: Iang at June 26, 2006 01:42 PM

Well, inspiration is necessary when folks are down and out and there's either an impending deadline or a hazy objective... A good leader should be able to push through exhaustion or confusion to bring a project or idea forward...

I guess I'm actually thinking specifically of this weekend's BarCamp in San Francisco -- which was very much an open source event where the participants built the event.

There were some awesome examples of folks stepping up and helping out -- there was also some free-riders that just soaked up other folks' hard work.

It was an interesting balance and not everyone was satisfied with the amount of volunteerism -- so the question is -- how do you create open opportunities for pitching in while not letting *everything* drop by stepping so far back that nothing gets done. Or, how do you share the responsibilities for a project, let everyone know what the goal is, do *some* of the work but also get a great deal of help and support throughout?

I guess what you're suggesting is that it's really all about communication -- and since you've made that point explicit, well, I can see how that really does play into one's success at leading without having to do everything or without becoming autocratic. Yes?

Posted by: Chris Messina at June 26, 2006 02:12 PM

> I wonder, given your experiences, what you consider the best examples of open source leadership that you've experienced... or perhaps the worst?

Um. Much of my experience in this is outside the open source field, which I guess is why it is possible to translate it.

If I was to quote an example of great leadership today, it would be of Warren Buffet's decision to give his fortune to Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation!

Reason? Buffet had to make a decision (that part is boring). Instead of doing it the conventional way, he looked for what he considered to be the best team in the business. He's pretty clear in stating that the reasons were that B&M are a) devoted to the task and b) experts, far more expert than others. So he deliberately wrote his own team out of the picture because he found a better team!

Second reason is that once he worked out what the good decision was, he then very carefully worked the decision through his family, his company, his shareholders, and his own Trust fund manager! That's communication -- taking a really weird oddball tough decision and convincing everyone around that this is a good thing. That's leadership!

Not exactly what you were looking for, right?

:)

Posted by: Iang at June 26, 2006 02:13 PM
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