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During the 2004 U.S. Presidential campaign, Democrat John Kerry managed to lose to (at the time) one of the most unpopular sitting presidents of all time, George W. Bush. Many people have analyzed what went wrong, but one particular problem was that too many people were analyzing what went wrong. From this Newsweek [article], "How He Did It" dated November 4, 2004:

Kerry's drive to self-perfection was boundless-sometimes to a fault. In early spring he sought counsel from Washington speech coach Michael Sheehan. With aides he would sometimes say, "Tell me everything you think I'm doing wrong." When John Sasso arrived on the campaign in September he found a candidate who had turned himself into a pincushion. "Kerry had been inviting personal criticism from pretty much anyone who had an opinion...Kerry was drowning in negative energy from all around," Thomas writes. Sasso wanted it to stop. There was to be no more direct criticism of the candidate, period.

Many insecure and overzealous leaders repeat this pattern, especially in OnlineCommunities. If you realize, most people start online communities as a hobby, and their wish is to create a vibrant place for others to participate. Moreover, most want to create an exciting, interesting, democratic forum for discussion. As such, most leaders feel they are the FirstServant of the community. At the worst, most wish to be a BenevolentDictator. Their overwhelming desire is to serve other, which leads them to be very receptive to concerns and criticism from other CommunityMembers.

Unfortunately, OnlineCommunities are havens for socially inept DifficultPerson?s and many leaders themselves may fall into this category, which only exacerbates the problem. First, online communities attract insecure people with poor social skills who take their social interaction on the Internet too seriously, as it is primary or major avenue for social interaction. Second, disintermediation coupled with ArchitecturalCollaboration? embedded egalitarian values means that marginal people who would otherwise have little social power in a PeckingOrder suddenly have as much as even the best. Third, anonymity breeds malicious behaviour. Finally, CommunityMembership is overly represented by inexperienced young people, typically 18-24, who have time, boredom, and unmet social needs that drive them to online participation.

Thus, the already daresay snivelly types coupled with an overly concerned leader can lead to a swirling atmosphere of negativity. The leader who thinks they are opening themselves to constructive criticism ends up as a PinCushion, taking one insult after another until one day they finally snap, buried inside their own AngryCloud.

For the community as a whole, this is bad for several reasons. As will be described below, it usually is a symptom of the community's sense of coherent identity disintegrating. Second, destroying the leader's ability to lead will further damage the community's coherence. Third, a negative atmosphere just encourages others to exercise their RightToLeave--perhaps the leader, but also other CommunityMembers and potential newcomers.

Not a FairProcess

Many people feel the leader should accept and deal with such criticism. After all, they are the leader, and PowerIsCriticism. If they don't like it, they should step down. This argument is obviously circular, and the logic only really has strength if you believed that in reality the leader won't step down. But, of course, the leader is also a SelfishVolunteer with the RightToLeave, and they should really step down the moment they feel they are no longer having fun (cf. FunFactor), or if they can no longer do their jobs effectively. This would not be a failure of the leader; it's a failure of the community to maintain a FairProcess.

Most discussions of FairProcess presume the leader will DevolvePower to his or her subordinates, and thus it seems like a contradiction for the leader to complain he or she is not experiencing FairProcess. Yet, fairness is a two-way street. A leader is the FirstServant, after all, and as anyone who has actually had servants would know (think waiters, employees, hotel staff, clerks), you must treat them with respect as it is only their job, not their god-given duty. When people criticize a leader directly, to the man as it is said, they are taking the stance that the underlying responsibility for the community is in the leader's hands. That is, it is enough to merely complain that such and such is not working, and then the leader is responsible for sorting it out.

This is unfair. The leader is only the FirstServant. His or her job is to enable others to build their own community, not to control others. After all, the same leader would be also criticized for taking DirectAction, and accused of not following a FairProcess. Rather than TakeResponsibility? themselves, the CommunityMembers are abrogating their duties as community members in deference to a "ReveredLeader", and in so doing, they are in effect rejecting their CommunityMembership to become merely TheAudience at the feet of the leader as TheAuthor. There is no where for the leader to go in this scenario except to do nothing and leave the community, a move that is not so dishonest since after all there really is no community.

A FairProcess instead would be to keep criticism about the community at the level of problems to be solved, and methods to solve them. The leader's only responsibility is to ensure the CommunityMembers have the means to then follow through on their solutions. The last point is so important it deserves to be repeated: a community leader does not fix the problems, but empowers the CommunityMembers to build their own community.

Bringing it on yourself

Of course, the more a leader acts like a GodKing, the more he or she brings criticism on him or herself. The more the leader takes DirectAction without consulting or deferring to TheCollective will, in a way that is not equal to the capabilities of the average CommunityMember, the more the leader both invites criticism of their actions (for there is nothing else for others to do to react) and signals through his or her independent action that TheCollective responsibility does not exist. Further, the more the leader invests his or her ego into the community and then constructs the community around his or her ego, the more the leader will both feel criticisms of the community as personal and the more criticisms of the community will naturally be personal. AntiAuthoritarians might even be able to legitimize themselves as RebelLeader?s.

While being a PinCushion is always painful, a leader can more easily complain about the unfair treatment if he or she has been dilligent in not abusing power, since after all, PowerIsCriticism. A PinCushion is often, after all, only a natural (if ugly) response to an unfair shift in power.


There are several options for a leader and a community. Obviously the leader could just exercise his or her RightToLeave and resign. This could take the form of simply stepping down, possibly but not necessarily (a dangerous but frequent cast!) handing power over to someone else. The leader could turn into an AbsentLeader without formally handing over the reins. The leader could just shut down the community altogether. The leader may just say a GoodBye and depart, giving full control over to the community. These options may be unpalatable to many leaders, especially those who have invested much time, energy, and love into the community, particularly those they founded. For the community's own interest, it's much easier to convince someone to step down as a leader at the peak of their success than at the lowest point in their careers, so you are much less likely to be granted a proper succession in this environment.

Better solutions are to focus on a FairProcess to make changes to the community. In particular for the leader, to continue to DevolvePower over time. For other CommunityMembers, they must TakeResponsibility? as well as teach the CommunityExpectation to TakeResponsibility?. They must also DefendEachOther, including the leader and as well as against the leader when the leader does something bad. Gently remindering the leader he or she is a FirstServant would do well, but also step up yourselves to dilligently to use any devolved power to creatively devolve more power to yourselves. The leader only has so much creativity, time, and energy.

For leaders, talking to other CommunityLeader?s from other environments, such as on MeatballWiki, will keep you inspired and fresh. You can also commiserate outside your own community in order to help keep things in perspective as well as to release negative energy in a SafePlace?. Also, build in plans for your own departure, as you cannot possibly be the leader forever. Build new leaders underneath you and then give them space to act. It's better for criticism to be diffused across several people rather than directed only at one.

Ultimately, though, a PinCushion indicates there is too much focus on one person, and that probably means that one person is incapable of fixing the problem. Other CommunityMembers? have to constructively build new leadership structures to fill in the power vacuum. The leader inside the PinCushion will not be able to help, but also he or she won't be able to interfere. The danger with this strategy is that it will seem to the leader under pressure you are trying to replace him or her, and force their departure. If you want to do this, good luck. You may not have the power to stop the leader from destroying the community in the process. A safer but more difficult strategy, as leaders step down faster at the peak of their career, is to alleviate pressure on the leader by taking responsibility off their shoulders before asking them to relinquish control lest there be a repeat of the PinCushion. This process has the added benefit of not only saving the community, but making it stronger and more resilient in the end--a legacy even the most despotic leader should appreciate.

Finally, these responses presume the PinCushion evolved as part of an inappropriate power structure. If there are DifficultPerson?s in the community who are doing an inordinate amount of unjustified or irresponsible complaining, they should be ejected. A community above all must remain a SafePlace? for activity.


Those remedies only answer what the community as an organization should do. The truth is that a person only becomes a PinCushion, or at least being a PinCushion only becomes problematic, if the person begins to internalize the criticism. We are our own best critics; after all, we are with ourselves every minute of the day. The worst outcome of internalizing criticism is analysis paralysis, where we become incapable of acting because we over-criticize our actions, because we have become so insecure. It's often much better to act first and learn from your mistakes rather than do nothing at all, yet this requires confidence. Be warned though: AnalysisIsControl. The more insecure a leader becomes, the more they will lash out to control others in order to regain their sense of safety.

Self-doubt is terrible. Anyone feeling akin to John Kerry in the scenario above should AssumeGoodFaith. You are acting in what you consider good intentions, even if you make mistakes. Making mistakes is always acceptable as long as we learn from them, and then seek ways to limit similar mistakes in the future. You need to break a few eggs to make an omelette, and while it may be unfortunate sometimes, it's part and parcel of getting things done in the world. So, trust yourself. Even if you don't know what you are doing, or what you think is right turns out to be wrong, the only thing you have to focus on is improving yourself. Sure, we EnforceResponsibility, but we also ForgiveAndForget. The only punishable actions are unnecessary violence or unsanctioned grasps at control.

The question then, how do you stop self-doubt and begin trusting yourself? Remember, you can only ControlYourself (ultimately), so attempts to stop other people's criticism will be very costly. One option is to exercise your RightToLeave and abandon the pack of hounds gnawing your neck. Don't swim in a negative environment if you can help it. If you can't leave, at least find new positive environments or accentuate the role of these positive environments in your life. These will recharge you. Focus on what you're good at. Finally, compare notes with peers from other environments to see what they would have done. The earlier you do this, the fewer mistakes you will make, the less confidence you will lose. For instance, MeatballWiki is a good place to share experience.

[-- SunirShah]


I think there are many ways how users of a wiki can show how much they appreciate each other. Like awarding a BarnStar for example, or just by giving praise for good pages or contributions. Of course a founder shouldn't be only the source but also the target of such symbolic gratifications. Of course every contribution to a wiki according to its mission should be interpreted as a positive signal to the founder: "we use your systems, it's ok, you are ok". -- HelmutLeitner



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