Leaders rule – differently, though


January 6th, 2009

Keith Sawyer has an interesting post about the role of leadership and lessons learned from the impact of internet ‘democratisation’ and the emergence of ‘open source communities’.

Keith suggests that the internet has enabled ‘participatory democracy’ evidenced by Wikipaedia and Linux. The question remains however if there is a different form of leadership required in such communities.

What is becoming clear is that  “no new technology…changes the fundamentals of human social dynamics”. Citing a study by Siobhan O’Mahony and Fabrizio Ferraro of leadership structures that emerged over 13 years on the Debian distribution of Linux – with 100 developers in more than 40 countries, Keith concludes that a leadership style is needed that enables innovation to flourish. “It’s the kind of leadership that focuses on enabling the best innovation to emerge from the bottom up.”

And:

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.

What does this mean for those of us working with leaders, or exploring the role of leadership?

Apart from the obvious need for all of us to maintain that real-world face-to-face contact as well as social networking, I think it underlines the importance of generalist skills for leaders, as well as empathy, intuition, and, dare I suggest, spontaneity? For leaders to enable innovation to flourish they will need to be comfortable with messiness, uncertainty and whacky ideas. They will need to know how to accept offers, to keep the organisation moving, recognising that the direction and where it moves to is ultimately unknowable until they arrive. This puts processes like strategic planning exactly where they belong – in the meaningless time wasting basket. And puts improv skills front and centre. But then, I’m biased!

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