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Leadership, fawgawdsake!

September 20, 2014

In a Google+ post last week, Aaron Seigo rightfully ripped into “community managers” — quotes intentional, because it doesn’t really apply to all who are in charge of keeping a community functioning (more on this later) — generally who lead from above or by “star power” rather than leading by the consensus of the community. I wrote about it briefly in my weekly wrap-up on FOSS Force on Friday, but it started me to think about what makes good project leadership.

As I said in my FOSS Force item, I think overall Aaron is right in his tome on G+, yet part of the problem is the term “community manager” itself, which might lend itself to the boss/worker dynamic, and whether this makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy in many communities. It very well might, and that aspect needs changing.

I would rather see the interpretation of those who are given the responsibility of communities — hopefully an earned responsibility granted by the consent of the wider community — to be titled something differently: community gardener, community facilitator, community cat herder, whatever. Those in leadership positions are neither bosses giving orders nor “rock stars” to be adored. Those in charge, regardless of what they’re called, are the ones who facilitate the project through inspiring a committed and focused community.

Reading Aaron’s latest salvo and the myriad of interesting comments that followed, it made me think about what makes a good leader and who might serve a project community well as a facilitator.

One name kept coming up.

My Dad.

Larry Cafiero, Sr., more "happy warrior" than "grammar hammer," would have made a good FOSS project facilitator.

Larry Cafiero, Sr., more “happy warrior” than “grammar hammer,” would have made a good FOSS project facilitator.

Larry Cafiero, Sr. — known as Larry the Elder to my Larry the Younger, or Senior to my Junior (prepare for some pain if you call me that to my face) like the Griffeys — was really more “Happy Warrior” than “Grammar Hammer” as a newsman, but one of the traits that made him exceptional in the field was that no job was too small for him — nothing too insignificant, nothing beneath him — either as a city desk editor at The Miami Herald or as the Herald’s longtime Special Publications Editor, the position at which he worked for the last decade of his journalism career.

It was really no accident that I followed my father into the field, and I always looked to him for guidance. It always impressed me that his staff, never more than one or two, always seemed to go the extra mile, and always went above-and-beyond, for the department. One time, I asked one of his assistants why, and I was told — and I’m paraphrasing — that my father “was one of them.”

I didn’t know what he meant by that until Dad and I talked about leadership when I had been given the keys to a weekly newspaper in Dade County and I had to lead a group of reporters and photographers.

“Did you ever read ‘Henry V’?” He asked me. I hadn’t. He said I should read it, paying special attention to the preparation for, and the fighting of, the Battle of Agincourt.

So I did. And I got it.

It also made something else he said several months before a little less obtuse. We were at Johnny Raffa’s Lobo Lounge — one of Miami’s press bars in the late ’70s — and we talked over identical bourbons about what makes a great newsman. Dad’s answer was simple: You had to be like Captain Kirk.

Actually, I found it odd that my father was referring to a show I knew he didn’t really watch.

“You mean, I have to kiss all the green alien women on the planet?” I asked.

I got the look, then the eyeroll, followed by the admonishment, “Oh, fawgawdsake,” in the New York accent borne of his rearing in the Maspeth section of Queens, New York.

I can still hear him explaining it this way: Kirk had the ability to do everything on the Enterprise by himself, if necessary. The entire crew could drop dead and he’d still be able to fly the ship, at least in theory if not in practice. So a great newsman knows everything about producing the news — he can report, edit, lay out pages, crop photos, set type (what we did back then), make plates, put the plates on the press, and run the press.

So what it comes down to is this: Creating software, or even hardware, as a community in the open-source realm means encountering many rhetorical Battles of Agincourt, and it takes special kind of leader to marshal a team of developers to perform this task, day in and day out, like clockwork. Also, it takes a special leader to be able to “fly the Enterprise” by himself or herself if necessary, having both the knowledge and the desire to pick up where parts of the team may be lagging to bring the project up to speed.

You don’t get that with so-called leaders following traditional management tenets in a traditional manager/worker role. You certainly don’t get that with “rock stars,” as if that needs saying.

But you get that with leadership modeled after Henry V. And Captain Kirk. And Larry Sr., fawgawdsake.

This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software Guy, Larry the CrunchBang Guy, Fosstafarian, Larry the Korora Guy, and Larry Cafiero, are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND license. In short, this license allows others to download this work and share it with others as long as they credit me as the author, but others can’t change it in any way or use it commercially.

(Among the many things he does, Larry Cafiero writes news and commentary once a week — and occasionally more frequently — for FOSS Force.)

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  1. Colonel Panik
    September 21, 2014 at 3:21 pm

    How many times has Colonel Panik said; “Communities are tricky”?
    FOSS/Linux communities are especially tricky because of all those very bright,
    opinionated people that gather there. Hey, CMs, good luck with that chore.

    Larry tFSG nailed it. Maybe Larry the Elder nailed it and his kid listened for once?

  2. December 18, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    “We few. We happy few. We band of buggers….”

    That was a good catch on your father’s part. I would also site the motion picture “12 O’clock High”. The Gregory Peck Character (who’s name escapes me at the moment) was held as a paragon of leadership in some of my Psychology classes.

    As far as leadership in the FOSS community goes, what are these people supposed to “manage” exactly? That’s never actually been clear to me. The most prominant example in the world is Jono Bacon and his work with Canonical. It seems where he is concerned, the primary role of the CM is to convince users that the hair-brained ideas being foisted on them are terrific and the best thing that can happen to their favorite distribution.

    Mandriva had a terrific guy at one time. I really wish I could remember his name. I remember when he left. It was just shortly after Mandriva started making crappy decisions to try and plug holes in their boat as they started to get into financial hot water (again). While the CM was there it was almost as if management and developers actually listened to the people on the boards.

    As I imagine it, the CM is simply surrounded by cats. Cats in the support fora, cats in mangement, cats doing all the devlopment. Cats, as far as they eye can see. Surely it would be easier to manage a kindergarten class.

    So, I don’t know what a CM actually does, but it looks really hard. As leaders, I’m betting that CM’s find themselves standing all alone with users and management wandering off on their own a good portion of the time.

    Hail the Community Managers! They shall ever remember St. Crispian’s Day!


    • December 19, 2014 at 8:02 am

      Thanks, Mark. If Gregory Peck did nothing else, his Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” speaks volumes about how people should behave. Also, I remember that Adam Williamson was at Mandriva before he was at Red Hat, but I don’t know if he was the CM. He was, however, one of the guys who made Mandriva a great distro at the time.

  3. December 19, 2014 at 11:32 pm

    Thank you!

    Adam Williamson is exactly who I was thinking of. Not sure what he’s up to these days, but he was a terrific asset when he was with Mandriva. Things went to hell quickly as he left. Not sure whether that was a cause or a symptom, but he was missed.


  4. aicra
    January 4, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    I don’t like the term manager. Good post. We march side by side. We code side by side. Gardener was a fun term. Community minded elder might work. Sounds better than “dinosaur” as some refer to us now.

  5. February 4, 2015 at 12:07 am

    Larry, wassup? See you at SCALE?

    • February 5, 2015 at 7:31 am

      Of course – you have a great talk lined up, by the way. Looking forward to hearing it.

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