Leadership and Democracy

I was listening to FLOSS Weekly this week as I was running about, and there was a bit in one of the episodes about leadership and organization of open source projects.

Not being much of a programer at all--but being very interested in, for lack of a better term, the anthropology [1] of open source projects--this sparked a larger interest. Lets back up for a moment.

Some of the larger (and apparently smaller ones as well?) open source projects like Perl, Python, and the Linux Kernel are lead by sort of "benevolent dictator," types who guide development, make decisions about release dates, provide vision, and are generally responsible for some major part of the code. [2] These are typically the people that started the project, though I think there are some second/next generation leaders of projects, (Matt Mullenweg of WordPress [3] for one.)

And this is interesting, because we generally think of open source as being this incredibly democratic space where users and developers can all sit on the same level and say "this is what I think," and have their voices heard. [4] Right? I mean isn't being able to shape the direction and tools of your (technological) experience, sort of what democracy (in this sphere) is about?

Of course it is. Democracy isn't about voting and contentious power struggles with small margins, democracy is about a group of people making it possible for different perspective to be heard. So to put it in parliamentary terms: it's the debate/discussion, not the vote that matters.

And here you thought I was going to post something about the current american political debacle? Pass. Not because I don't have opinions (I do,) or because it's not fascinating (it is,) but because there's absolutely nothing to say. That kind of "democracy," isn't by this definition particularly democratic and doesn't have as much impact on the way we live our lives as the other kinds of "micro-political" democracies that we are constantly participating in. Many kinds of work environments are democratic in this way, after a fashion, and many other small groups, like dancing, craft-related, not for profits, grassroots organizations, have strong (and potentially static) leadership and vibrant discussion, which nets a very democratic result.

I think this is a continuation of some of my earlier postings on open source, but I think will also be part of a new (irregular) series of posts on leadership, because there's so much to talk about and so little room (and time.)

I think the major ideas that are running through my head are:

  • the difference between power and leadership
  • how democracies scale up and scale down to different group sizes.
  • the symbols associated with democracy, and the power of those symbols (maybe this could develop into a post for the theory blog, nu?)

I really enjoy thinking (and talking!) about these sorts of political notions, but I'm always disappointed by the shape that most "political discussions" take. So here's my attempt to take back the night and start a more frank (and productive discussion.) What's leadership to you, and what kinds of successes and failures do you all see in your own microdemocraies? [5]

So, anyway, think about that, I look forward to hearing from you, and there'll be more knitting content soon; I promise.

[1]I suppose this could be the sociology of open source, I'm uncommitted, particularly at the moment, on the subject. I'm just interested--idly mostly--in how these communities organize and motivate themselves. With some exceptions this kind of organizational structure isn't really supposed to work, but is so clearly does. It's not my thing, but it's interesting.
[2]They said that these were all "first name people," as they're really well known, and generally pretty well liked in the community, and thus refered to only by their first names. eg, "Lary," "Guido," and "Linus."
[3]He'd be a good one for FLOSS Weekly. Hrm.
[4]I think your chances of being able to get mysql to add/support a new feature that you want (even if you have to write it yourself) is light years beyond the chances of getting Oracle, for instance, to add the new feature.
[5]So, one thing that I want to squash immediately is a discussion of interpersonal drama, which though often political in content, particularly in numerically small groups is not particularly political in nature. For instance, the rumor is that there's generally a lot of "kernel politics," and drama in the linux kernel development (and other sorts of drama in other parts of the linux world,) and while this might be a product of these communities growing too large or of weak(er) leadership than is required, it's probably the case that this kind of drama is a byproduct of "community" rathe than the byproduct of any particular organization.
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