One of the great things about going to OSCON was getting to know some of the interesting people involved in the various open source projects. The OSI team and Mitchell Baker, the Chief Lizard Wrangler of the Mozilla Foundation introduced me to a lot of people in the context of having joined both of their boards recently.

One meeting that Mitchell set up was with Allison Randal - the president of the Perl Foundation, Zak Greant - the former MySQL AB Community Advocate, and Cliff Schmidt who until recently managed standards and open source strategy for BEA's WebLogic Workshop product. Since we are going through various changes right now at the Mozilla Foundation, Mitchell has been talking to various people to try to get thoughts on how successful open source projects are managed. She's trying to get as much input as possible to as the Mozilla Foundation grows and transforms. I've recently been invited into the conversation and it is fascinating.

This particular meeting, which reflected some of the wonder I felt during all of OSCON, was an eye opener. Mitchell asked everyone to introduced themselves and explain their roles and what was required in their roles. Allison was first and Mitchell recalls on her blog that it went something like this:

mitchell's blog
So, for example, what does it take to guide a foundation, as Allison does? Well, it takes a sense of people, and good intuition for what sorts of seemingly simple topics are likely to generate giant tensions if not handled delicately. It takes knowing when to let an issue fade away and when to make sure it is completely resolved. It takes an ability to find a common ground, and enough presence (or trust, or reputation, or *something*) to get people to consider that common ground.
It turns out that everyone had job descriptions and skills that were quite similar.

This reminds me of the Leader-Follower essay by Dee Hock - the founder of VISA. (You should read the whole thing.)

Leader-Follower
True leaders are those who epitomize the general sense of the community — who symbolize, legitimize, and strengthen behavior in accordance with the sense of the community — who enable its conscious, shared values and beliefs to emerge, expand, and be transmitted from generation to generation-who enable that which is trying to happen to come into being. The true leader's behavior is induced by the behavior of every individual who chooses where they will be led.
His notion of leadership is bottom-up, community and coordination oriented and not focused on the exercise of authority.

What I saw in the leaders of open source projects and in the communities in general was a very strong sense of this kind of leadership. Open source projects have their share of politics and petty problems and clearly leaders of other types of organization do and should exhibit these sorts of leadership traits. However, I definitely saw something special in these open source leaders which reminded me of the leaders that Dee Hock described. They had strong ethics, were humble, were extremely sensitive of the needs of their community and lead more through coordination and management of processes than through exercise of authority. This was in stark contract to some of the conversations I have had at various CEO forums where people talked about "human resources" as if they were cogs and seemed to feel that the CEO had some divine right to more money and more power. Again, I would add that there are a great number of exceptions in both groups, but generally speaking, the conversations with the open source leaders made me feel like I was seeing the future of organizations compared to my experience with CEOs of normal for-profit companies.

I think that the Mozilla Foundation and the success of open source is a test and will be an example of a new kind of organizational management style which I believe will have lessons applicable to all kinds of organizations. (Note: DBA tag.) Enlightened leaders in other areas are also developing methods that involve treating their staff, customers and other stakeholders as a communities, but this still appears to be the exception, not the norm.

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6 Comments

Good post. This form of leadership is similar to the "servent-leader" paridigm. Where the leader serves the community and manages the process of community concenous.

Yes. I keep using the word "custodians of the consensus process" to explain what I think ICANN's role should be. Similar point. I don't think ICANN should have any more authority than to be the servant of the community and to manage and help design the process. But that's just MY opinion. ;-)

I see ICANN's role as a builder of bridges, bringing disparate interests together.

Now this is going to be tougher than it sounds given the number of people who first associated themselves with icann and later turned into vocal (in some cases extremely so) critics of whatever icann does.

And even tougher given the huge mire of politics the entire igovernance thing has slipped into

If you can help make a difference I wish you all the very best of luck

Actually Joi, I would use the term "stewards of the concenus process", rather then "custodians". The former initiates thoughts of guidence whereas the latter initates the impression of ownership!

Dee Hock's essay may sound idealistic, but is sorely lacking in critical awareness. If one is to consider, for example, the critique contained in The New Work Order: Behind the language of the new capitalism (Gee, J.P., Hull, G. & Lankshear, C., Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996), one can easily demonstrate how this idealism is readily co-opted. There are key aspects of leadership in the FLOSS movement that are largely being missed by most management theorists, since they fundamentally challenge the underlying assumptions of contemporary corporations. The specifics are too involved for a comment post (but will hopefully be published soon!)

A simple example has to do with the aspect of "referent leadership" in theories of social power. (The seminal reference is French, J.R.P., Jr. & Raven, B.H. (1959). The bases of social power, Studies in Social Power. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.) In this notion, a leader emerges from among a social group because there is an emergent reference to the person as a leader by virtue of respected and respectful behaviours, etc., that has nothing to do with legitimacy, possession of greater information, ability to reward or punish, etc.

The evolution of Linus Torvalds is instructive in this regard, as recent reports seem to suggest shifts in the governing aspects of his power among the Linux project participants.

Managing programmers is like herding cats...

http://www.logarithmic.net/pfh/cats_and_dogs

... though "judge" or "arbiter" may be more politic terms. "Servant"/ "steward"/"custodian" is a bit weak -- these people wield considerable power, and make significant decisions.

The great advantage of this leadership style is that you have more than one person coming up with ideas.

See also http://geekz.co.uk/lovesraymond/archive/the-washing-up

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