What Kind of Leader?

There’s a radical new form of participatory democracy: the Internet.  At least, that’s what some advocates would have you believe.  Take Wikipedia: anyone can create a new encyclopedia entry, add an interesting fact to an existing entry, or edit an entry to correct a mistake.  Take the Linux operating system, based on what’s called the “open source” model–which means, just like Wikipedia, anyone can edit the program that makes it work.  If you don’t like the way it does something–let’s say, the way it displays your files when you ask to see what’s in a folder–you can just dive right in and make it do what you like.  (Of course, assuming you’re a talented programmer!)

Groups of people that work on Wikipedia or Linux are known as “open source communities” and the business press would have you believe that they are the polar opposite of the hierarchical, cubicle, stuffed-shirt office.  For example, they’re often said to be pure meritocracies, where the best programmers always win: titles, hierarchy, and politics are no longer a factor.

However, any serious student of people in groups would be instantly skeptical of these claims.  No new technology, no matter how awesome, changes the fundamentals of human social dynamics.  The telegraph was, if anything, even more transformative for its day than the Internet (it’s been called “The Victorian Internet” in a brilliant book with that title by Tom Standage), and it didn’t change human social dynamics, either.

I’ve just read a new study by Siobhan O’Mahony and Fabrizio Ferraro* that analyzes how leadership structures emerged, over 13 years, in the community of developers working on the Debian distribution of Linux.  This is the second most popular Linux distribution, surpassed only by Red Hat.  There are over 1,000 Debian developers in over 40 countries; over 150 vendors distribute this software.  The Debian community was formed in 1993; the researchers discovered that over a 13 year period, the community went through a fascinating evolution during which the nature of leadership changed.  Here’s their analysis:

1993-1997:  The founder had the final say, and when he left he informally passed on leadership to one of his trusted lieutenants.  This person was thought to be overly autocratic and was asked to step down; at that point, the community had to think more explicitly about how they would be governed.

1997-1999: A third leader was selected who vowed to lead a collective effort to draft a constitution that would retain the democratic and participatory nature of the community.  The constitution was eventually ratified by 357 developers, and the leader was given the title of “Debian project leader” or DPL.  Much of the decision-making power was placed with a technical committee rather than the DPL.

1999-2003: DPLs were elected for one-year terms.  The researchers characterize this period as “experimentation with the leader role” because they identified three different styles of leaders among those elected, from “hands off” types to “visionary leader” types.

2003-2006: By 2003, the three earlier styles of leaders were supplanted by a new type, the “organization leader”: individuals who were not necessarily technical wizards but instead emphasized communication, culture, and relational skills.  When the candidates’ written platforms were analyzed, in 2006 76 percent of the text focused on organizational issues, whereas in 1999 only 37 percent was (back then candidates emphasized technical issues).

The conclusion is that although autocratic leadership failed early on, as the organization grew larger and more successful, they needed leaders who were more organizationally gifted; technical skills were not enough.  “Debian may be a meritocracy, but merit is not measured solely by technical contribution” (p. 1100).  The surprising finding, the authors say, that “a community so wary of the effects of positional authority that its members actively limited it would, over time, prefer leaders who expanded their reach of authority….even the most savvy online communities are not immune to well-known general principles of organizing” (p. 1100).

Another interesting finding from this important paper: developers who met more other developers face to face were more likely to get elected.  Even in geographically dispersed virtual communities like Debian, face-to-face interaction predicts community leadership.

Of course, these leaders are nothing like the autocratic bosses of the starched-shirt 1950s.  They’re more like the leaders you find in super-innovative organizations like W. L. Gore or Google: they embrace the role of leader, and leadership is necessary to make the organization work, but it’s not a top-down planned form of leadership.  It’s a kind of leadership that focuses on enabling the best innovations to emerge from the bottom up.  You need this kind of leader in every organization, not only in open source communities.

*O’Mahony and Ferraro, 2007. The emergence of governance in an open source community. Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 50, No. 5, pp. 1079-1106.

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