Ten thoughts on community leadership

How leadership in an open source community can work, in ten lessons learned

Many activities these days, be it sports, social work, arts or free and open source software, are organized in some sort of community. If backed by a respective legal entity, this not only helps with getting donations and entering contracts, but also puts statutes and rules in place that set forth the values and ideals all contributors share and abide to. Inside these communities, there can be various roles. Some of them as formal requirement and with annual or biannual elections, e.g. the board of directors or the supervisory board, others within dynamically grown groups that can change frequently. Either of those are ideally composed of experienced and enthusiastic community members who take leadership and responsibility. Many regular contributors will therefore sooner or later face the question whether to accept a certain role. Based on my experience with being a board member of the former German associations OpenOffice.org Deutschland e.V. and Freies Office Deutschland e.V., previous chairman and current executive director of The Document Foundation and founding member of the Munich Open-Source-Treffen e.V., I would like to share some personal findings with you. These views are purely my own and your mileage might vary. It is likely that others made both similar and different experiences, so I’m looking forward to any feedback and thoughts you might have.

1. Cooperation

A community is all about cooperation. Boards, groups and bodies are no different in this regard. Usually, you don’t know who will co-serve on an elected committee with you until shortly before you start your duty. Therefore, it is important to cooperate openly with your new colleagues, in a transparent, trustworthy and effective way, both towards the committee as well as the larger community. Sharing a common understanding of responsibilities and duties, even more about your goals, visions and plans can help a lot. It’s not necessary these are all totally aligned in first place, as long as a consensus and compromise help to identify goals that benefit the community and their objectives at large. In a vivid and diverse community, usually several goals can be met at similar times, as many of these are not mutually exclusive. And then let’s not forget one thing: the fun. Be proud that you have been entrusted by your peers to drive the community and its projects into a bright future, be proud that you can help steer the ship and shape the soul of something that is important to you. As often in life, cooperating and working together with others is key to success. Joining forces is not only easier, but also much more fun than working alone.

2. Commitment

Taking over a role is something that can and should make you proud. See this as something you have been entrusted with for a certain amount of time, because your contributions have been recognized by the community as extraordinary and remarkable. You acted in a visible and trustworthy fashion and people attribute your doings with leadership skills. Depending on the role you take, that honour therefore comes with a fair amount of new work beyond what you already do and in areas possibly yet unknown to you. In other words: You will also see lots of additional work that takes its time and that likely is not related to your current tasks at all. How much time such a commitment takes obviously depends on multiple factors: what specific role you take, how many contributors you have to coordinate with, how large your organization is and of course what kind of projects you run. In one of its annual reports, board members of The Document Foundation explained that every year “they each donate 15 to 20 days of activity to TDF for Board duties in addition to other volunteering” and the members of its membership committee “between 10 and 15 days of activity”  (p. 33).

3. Variety

Should you be elected into an organizations’ formal body, you will see yourself responsible for representing the entity, both from a marketing, but also from a legal and organizational point of view. Next to the more glamorous parts these duties often also entail regular meetings, annual budget planning and reserve building, tax filings and annual activity reports, team management, trademark and copyright handling, planning and overseeing tenders, all sorts of expected and unexpected legal matters and fostering liasons with other entities, all of which are rather unglamorous tasks rarely even seen by the general public. That asks for the willingness to learn in a variety of areas and for having a rather high tolerance for frustration. Luckily, most of the groups I know are composed of members with different skills, so it’s likely someone is either already experienced in or willing to learn one or more of the respective areas. Looking at The Document Foundation’s rules of procedure for the board, a total of 14 different areas of oversight can be identified, each one staffed with one or more volunteers, matching their area of interest.

4. Delegation

Handling all the work alone as a pure volunteer will sooner or later become an impossible task and unless you have magical superpowers, it’s strongly advisable to share these with other seat holders, volunteers and, if exist, staff and external professionals. Often, growing organizational demands luckily come together with a financial growth of the entity, which makes paying professionals for certain tasks quite feasible and sensible, with accounting, administration and legal advice being the prime samples of things to outsource unless that’s your profession anyways. If you oversee a large part of the organization, you primarily need to focus on strategy and the mission at large, so it is advisable to delegate many tasks to others. Remember, the community has entrusted you to steer the ship, to oversee the big picture - don’t bother yourself with every little detail and micromanagement, but get enough insight to oversee those you task and trust them that they do a good job.

5. Responsibility

In the end, however, it still is the ultimate and shared responsibility of all representatives to oversee and coordinate the work, ensure all duties are fulfilled and, especially for board members, take care that all legal obligations are met. Remember, donors trust you to make good use of their money, so you have a huge responsibility. In nearly all legislations, there exist numerous rules and regulations you are bound by and at least the European trend is rather to make things more complicated instead of relaxing them. In case something goes wrong, those most exposed are first in line to be confronted with that both from a social and legal point of view. For legal representatives, it is highly advisable to insure possible risks via the entity itself to lower personal exposure.

6. Social

Depending on the size of the organization and your role, you might not only have responsibility for tasks and projects, but also for a paid team. Keep in mind that for them it often provides a fair amount, if not the only income, to make their living and their economic situation depends on the success of the your organization. Job safety and positive work environment are important factors to keep a happy and dedicated team. Gaining the skills and finding the time as a pure volunteer to oversee a large full-time team for sure is demanding. Interacting by talking, listening and being open helps a lot for both your team and the organization. This bears a learning curve that is very well worth the efforts. In many organizations, the paid team is there to serve your community, to drive forward the success of the project, to take away annoying administrative tasks from you and to work on tasks that support and enable your contributors. Working at charities can be a bit different from companies. Given most of your income consists of donor’s money, you have less monetary flexibility than commercial employers. However, you provide a far superior experience than many classical businesses. Use that as your advantage - your team does something for the good cause, can work with people around the world, can really make a difference and at the same time make a living out of what they love. Communicate often, communicate frequently and don’t forget to laude people if they do a good job, especially in remote working environments.

7. Diversity

Representatives often reflect the diversity of the community - gender, religion, language, culture, background and experience add an incredibly exciting variety. If you have been used to work in local organizations with local board members, this can be demanding in the beginning, as habits can differ a lot from what you are accustomed to. However, this diversity is one of the most important and exciting assets a larger community offers. In the beginning it can be challenging, but soon thereafter you’ll learn how it widens the view, helps you to question your own thoughts and positions and contributes greatly to your doings. If you run an open source community, do exactly as the name suggest - be open, be passionate and try to get to the bottom of things!

8. Coordination

Having members from around the globe can make you face some practical problems though - most notably, languages and time zones. While English as common denominator is spoken widely in Europe, it might be different for other countries and including those who don’t speak English as mother tongue is key if you have a large community. You risk losing vital insight into what your worldwide community does if you don’t manage to connect to them. Something the law of physics at least currently doesn’t allow is overcoming the different time zones. Finding suitable meeting slots for participants in different continents, matching everyone’s working schedule and work-life balance requirement isn’t trivial, especially when you want to include a paid team. While you end your working day, colleagues from a different continent are just about to start theirs. While the volunteers need meeting times after office hours, you staff is happy to not stay in the office until late or during the weekends. Likely there isn’t an ideal meeting time, but you will end up finding a compromise that works for most people, possibly including alternate meeting times. Word to the wise: Use calendar invites and meeting planners with time zones, to avoid confusion especially during times of daylight saving changes. The choice of medium is important as well - all stakeholders need to be aware of and included in important discussions. Some of these are thus better done in e-mail, others are easier to handle on the phone. You might also find it convenient to prepare discussions via e-mails and have the final vote on the phone. Properly prefixing e-mail subjects with votes and discussions can be likewise helpful to handle the influx of messages and catch people’s attention. The same is true for meeting intervals, agendas, deadlines, quorum requirements and sunset periods - these need to reflect the needs of everyone, to factor in availabilities, vacations and absences. The rationale behind this is that taking a role requires continuous, active participation in many communities, to keep up with what’s going on and that is much easier when the rules are clear. Depending on your setup and the jurisdiction you’re in, votes and meetings also have formal requirements you have to stick to.

9. Trust

Trust is probably one of the most important aspects for everyone who fills a role. E-mail conversations lack mimic and gestures, making it harder to understand moods, motions and intentions. Thus it’s even more important to assume best intentions on each side, trying to avoid what is known as confirmation bias, i.e. interpreting actions and words in a way that seems to confirm your existing negative assumptions. Trust especially comes to play when the entity is located in a country whose language you don’t speak or whose legal system you are not familiar with - you will have to rely on translation services and people acting as gateways, be them volunteers or paid professionals.

10. Reward

After all, filling a role is all about getting rewarded for the hard work it brings on top of your existing duties. It is indeed a very honourable and truly exciting opportunity that will not only enrich your professional life and makes a good item on a CV, but even more grows your personality, your skills and your point of view. If you’re passionate about what you do, if you’re open to new things, if you want to shape the future of what you love - then you indeed might be the right one to serve the community and lead by example.