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Generally, no leaderless developers have ever written big and complex software. It is unheard of. Whether that shows that people cannot or prefer not to do it, is unclear.

Some developers, such as the Wiki:ApacheGroup, have elected a team or a rotating team leader. Other developers, however, have accepted the original author of their software as a BenevolentDictator: Wiki:LinusTorvalds, Wiki:GuidoVanRossum, Wiki:LarryWall (LarryWall).

These people are dictators because they alone get to decide what patch goes into a release and what patch doesn't. Sometimes they delegate these decisions, but it is generally accepted that the software is "theirs" and that the decision is "theirs." These people are also supposed to be benevolent, because they are interested in a prospering project, therefore they share the same goals as most other developers. At the same time, since they rule over an active and vocal community, they cannot help but hear criticism, so at least some form of feedback is possible.

This is not yet "open" as KarlPopper would have called it. Popper would require a way to exchange one ruler for another. In FreeSoftware projects, this is usually not a problem, because if some developers don't agree with the GodKing, they can easily take the source and start their own project, using the RightToFork. Such schisms have happened in Emacs: There is Emacs and XEmacs, "same same but different."

The key point is that it doesn't cost much to duplicate the entire effort if the resource is FreeSoftware (very unlike a real government for real people).

The costs of such a schism appear much later, though. As the JargonFile:forked entry explains, this causes wasted effort, strife and acrimony. There is social pressure against forking, and therefore the positions of BenevolentDictators are pretty secure.

With online communities, this option isn't available (WikiPedia being a notable exception). However, participants still have the RightToLeave. While not as satisfying, ultimately it's often the best choice.

Downsides

ReveredLeader

In the volunteer world, BenevolentDictators come into being by stepping forward as the FirstServant to some underserved community. Because this is some selfless act, normal SelfishVolunteers are hard to find. Consequently, there are no other CommunityMembers around willing to become CommunityLeader?s to spread the work around and consequently the power and credit, which means the FirstServant turns into a BenevolentDictator over time. A successful BenevolentDictator will grow the community, and since newcomers will join because of his or her efforts, the BenevolentDictator will become a ReveredLeader. A lack of peer CommunityLeader?s exacerbates this problem as there are no comparable personalities newcomers can admire.

FirstServant BurnOut?

A FirstServant turned dictator will often covet his or her image of benevolence. On the surface, this will seem like part of the job in order to curry favour and guard against the public's RightToLeave. More importantly, however, the servant used to doing the work of others is uncomfortable in the role of leader dictating instructions to others. Deep down, the servant needs to maintain a self-image of benevolence, or conversely not being an arrogant, self-aggrandizing jerk. Consequently, the servant-leader keeps saying "Yes!" to too many others' demands without any regard for his or her own needs and priorities. Since trying to be everything to everyone is impossible, the servant leader will inevitably fail. The failiures lead to a vicious cycle of ever increasing external and self-criticism. The libertarians and freeloaders in the crowd will scream malfeasance and incompetence. Yet scant praise or recognition of the leader's work is given because everyone including the leader expects this selfless behaviour. As the criticism internalizes, the leader's motivation chips away exposing increasing amounts of self-doubt and insecurity. Today's failures are compared against yesterday's successes, especially within the leader's own mind. A previously strident leader will turn into an open wound, shocking especially those who regard him or her as a ReveredLeader rather than an average person.

This is a classic variation of the burn out cycle, but because it's triggered by selfless social commitments that form the nucleus of a community, it can be much worse. Since the community's CommonContext is really the FirstServant's commitments to CommunityMembers, it is very fragile. A burnt out leader will drop those commitments, and with them the PersonalRelationships that form the community. When the community collapses, the leader will be left alone without his or her key support network, with guilty feelings for letting down others, a sense of failure, an overly stressed psyche, and quite likely a tarnished reputation that will continually remind the leader of the trauma.

The lessons here are easier said than done:

Indeed, if you put all of these together, it makes a lot of sense why leaders should have finite and well-defined terms. If others in the community have different projects they want to see done, they can have the chance to take over the helm and see their ideas through. It is only your responsibility to encourage CommunityLeader?s to take responsibility themselves, not do the work for them. The team leader of a project is supposed to work on the team, not the project.

Decision making and AntiAuthoritarians

As the dictator originated as a selfless FirstServant, and probably he or she still thinks of him or herself in that light, this puts the dictator in the perplexing position of trying to accommodate a mob of followers who only want to hear what the dictator tells them to do. Because this situation is a deadlock--the mob who are followers waiting for instructions from the leader who thinks of him or herself as a servant waiting for orders from the mob--the community can grind to a halt, and much navel gazing will ensue about how the community is dying because decisions aren't being made. Eventually some crisis comes to pass (usually some DifficultPerson?) or sometimes the leader grows impatient to do something, and the feckless community must actually be dictated to by the leader. The FirstServant inside the leader's soul often has a great deal of difficulty with this action, especially if the action is politically negative such as dealing with some particularly nasty DifficultPerson?. On the other hand, if the action is constructive, this action could go very well because the mob of followers is often happy for instructions.

At that the instant when the leader dictates an action, the AntiAuthoritarians lurking in the crowd will pounce. This will lead to more navel gazing, which can be particularly painful if the previous round of complaining that nothing was getting done was long and drawn out. The FirstServant inside the leader, meanwhlie, might be sympathetic to this line of thought, which can lead to doubts next time a decision needed to be made especially if this decision was particularly negative. Another outcome is that the dictator enjoys the ability to tell people what to do and becomes more and more combative towards the AntiAuthoritarians, who will redouble their attacks every time they are "opressed".

The most positive outcome would be to use the power of the dictator to DelegateResponsibility after a difficult decision to a more public body. People don't mind unilateral difficult decisions in rough times when they are necessary as long as they are not necessary the next time. After all unilateral decisions are a sign the community was not prepared. The job of the leader is to prepare the community, not do the work of the community.

Case studies


Strange But True

RustyFoster's KuroShin business cards actually list his title as "BenevolentDictator".


Egalitarian minded people frequently have problems with a process that is has a role called a "BenevolentDictator" on the basis that it isn't egalitarian. In OpenSource, this isn't a problem, because we all know what it means: A dictator does not tell somewhat what they must do; Rather, the "dictator" decides what goes in, and what does not. And the RightToLeave and RightToFork ensures that it's a FairProcess.

But talk with people outside of OpenSource, about BenevolentDictator, and they start to get ansy. The image that comes up in their mind is of obsequious serfs, serving their feudal lords, who are, of course, according to scriptures, benevolent. These people outside OpenSource -- their blood starts to roil, and the passion comes to their hearts. "We must oppose this horrific, backwards process! We will do it collectively! We will oppose the beast!"

They then go to an OpenSpaceTechnology event, where it is the responsibility of the person who convenes a session, to ensure that the session notes are taken care of. Who is the person who decides what goes into the notes, or not into the notes? Why, the session note keeper, of course, dutifully assigned by the responsible session convener. (It may even be the session convener, herself.) BenevolentDictator in action.

Nowhere in the language of OpenSpaceTechnology, or the Art of Hosting [1] (and the Art of Harvesting,) [2] is the term "benevolent dictator" present. But people do essentially it, in each of these, as far as I understand them.

So I think we need some different language, for use outside of OpenSource communities.

What are good alternatives?

-- LionKimbro

(Can I just say that that was well argued, Lion? You are definitely improving in the art of expressing your argument, IMO.) I think the point of the BenevolentDictator name is to draw attention to the inherent conflict with the "open" principles. If, by relabeling the concept, we cause people to look for more open solutions in the long term, we have achieved our goal. If one has no desire to achieve this goal, the standard term "team leader" should do fine. -- ChrisPurcell

Thank you! And an interesting idea, too. -- LionKimbro


I find the downsides to be pretty spot on. However, I am interested in learning more about the SelflessAct? or SelflessNess? that are quoted in the part about the downsides. I have read SelfishVolunteer, but I couldn't find anything on SelflessVolunteer?s. -- DelphineMénard

Ok, in the coming days, I'll write something (more) about AddValue? and ExchangeValue?. -- SunirShah


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