Building effective community leaders: a guide


In this talk from DevXCon San Francisco 2018, community strategist and author Jono Bacon breaks down what leadership is, unpicks what makes a great leader and gives a practical guide to identifying, training and cultivating them.


It’s incredible to be here. I’m so happy that the wonderful folks behind this event invited me back this year. This is a great event and I know how much work goes into this. And so, thank you, on behalf of the team, for everyone coming out here. Lots of familiar faces, some unfamiliar faces. As a bit of background, Matt already mentioned this, I used to be Director of Community at GitHub, Canonical and XPRIZE.

I’m really passionate about how we build communities, and how we do it well, and how we further the art and science of this. I wrote a book called, “The Art of Community,” write some stuff for Forbes, and run an event called the Community of Leadership Summit, which is a bit like this but it’s an unconference and it’s a little bit more general than a specific developer topic. Well, that’s happening in Portland next month, completely free. Feel free to come along to that.

These days, I am a consultant. I work with companies around how to build communities for them. And one of the reasons why I did this is because I’m really excited about throwing myself into unfamiliar territory. So, I work with various companies in technology but also entertainment, professional services, consumer products, and various other bits and pieces. But, today, I wanna talk about leadership.

What good leadership looks like

Now, this is something that we often talk a lot about in communities, is what is leadership? How do we facilitate? How do we get better leadership in our communities? Today, I’m gonna share a few thoughts, from my perspective, about what good leadership looks like and then how you can integrate it better into your communities. This is, as with everything, one way of looking at this, one approach. I’m not saying any of this is gospel, but I’m hoping that this will give, hopefully, most of you, some food for thought about how you apply it in your own world as well.

So, starting at the beginning, we are all animals. Some of us are more animals than other people, particularly you people who don’t indicate when you change lanes in traffic, you should be rejected from society. We are pack animals. We are social beasts. We tend to think of ourselves as these majestic animals here. When probably, this is a bit more accurate, thinking about it, and we tend to subdivide the world into, when we talk about leadership, into leaders and followers.

And, you know, the idea that most people are followers and we have to have a small set of leaders in place. And I would argue that that’s generally pretty accurate. This presents a few interesting things for us to think about. First of all, there are always way few leaders than followers. So, we need to make sure we’re identifying the right kind of people to…because not everybody is capable of being a leader or even interested in it, but also, a lot of followers want to be leaders because leaders, seemingly, get to do all the fun things, as anyone who’s never been a manager will testify. When you are a manager, it’s all expense receipts and travel bookings and all that kind of crap. So, we want to develop leaders who can inspire people to follow them in a way that satisfies their desire to accomplish results in different ways.

The leadership of lobsters

Now, lobsters are interesting in this regard, and the reason for this is that we exist in societies and ecosystems. And great leadership is about of course, is about not just making good decisions and leading people in the right direction, but it’s about reacting to the society and the ecosystem that you’re in. If you don’t do that, then frankly, you become something of a dictator. Lobsters actually tend to fight each other to identify their dominance in their own ecosystems. And what can happen here is that the lobster that wins this fight becomes very powerful, becomes very confident, and has a thriving life ahead of it. For the lobster that doesn’t succeed, often it can be such a rejection that these lobsters can actually die, they’re so demoralized by this that they fall over and they don’t get back up again.

And this can happen a lot with people who are trying to become leaders is that, as you become a leader, you make lots of mistakes. And sometimes, it can be so demoralizing that people just lose their confidence and they do move on again. So, we need to bear in mind, how do we help people to be reactive to their environments in a way that helps them to succeed?

Now, there is also something called the IKEA effect. I typed in “Lobster house” into Google images, and this is what you get. Because the IKEA effect is when people go and build different things, so if I go and buy a table from IKEA and Matt buys a table IKEA, we both build it. We’ll both think our table is better than the other person’s table. Mine is actually better, just so you know. I had this vision of lobsters doing the same thing and this is what you get. But, this is, the other thing is that great leaders, in my mind, are people who are able to value other people’s creations and not just their own. Because, if you only value your own creations, as a leader, then what happens is you become, again, somewhat dictatorial.

Principles and values

Now, the other element here, I would say, as we think about these general principles and concepts, is that there are certain people who think that anyone can become a leader and you can learn how to lead by basically following charts and flow charts. What happens is you get all of this like, you know, this kind of, like, self-help books and seminars and stuff like that where it’s all about selling people on the secret formula of how great leadership occurs. And I don’t think that that works because if you don’t have the core principles and the core values of great leadership in place, what happens is this stuff doesn’t work, you know. There are people who would say, “Okay. Well, if you’re in a social situation and somebody says this thing, then there is this natural reaction that you have and that moves the conversation this particular direction.” I think it’s all nonsense, personally.

So, I think what we wanna do is we wanna focus on what are the core principles that the great leaders possess, and how do we help to instill that in communities, and then people become naturally reactive to this. When you pull all of this stuff together, you get something which I call “the governance paradox,” which is, we see this all the time in open source communities where a lot of the people who wanna join governance boards and open source communities are people who want power. And in many cases, those people aren’t actually very good leaders, they’re just people who are willing to put the effort in to become, you know, nominated in those governance boards. Certainly, this does not apply to everybody. But, by definition, some of the best leaders in the world, you would never ever see them pushing themselves as leaders, they just naturally characterize those kinds of elements in their personality.

So, how do we develop a culture of leadership without instilling a culture where the only people who are going to want to be in a leadership position are people who are basically just land-grabbing for power? I think there’s three things we think about. The first one here is that fundamentally, those people, as I’ve kind of walked through, in a way, we desire status and legacy. It’s actually how we define ourselves as good human beings is if we’ve got some kind of status, it gives us that kind of confidence. The second thing is that we overvalue our work and our ideas. And the third thing is that there is this myth that everybody can lead.

To me, the way in which we start building great leadership is that we invert these, is that we find people who don’t care about status and legacy, they care about good work. There are people who value other people’s creations and work, and they break that myth, and they can teach other people to be really great at what they do.

The restrictions of org charts

Now, the way companies try to do this usually is they create all of these ridiculous org charts where, you know, they line everybody up and you have to report to this particular person. The problem with this is that… This is for the Nassau County Sheriff’s Office, which is weirdly specific, now I’m thinking about it. You’ve got, like, the school crossing guard down here and they report into their Lieutenant Special Operations, and that person reports into the Captain Patrol, and then the Director of Operations, and the Sheriff. The problem is here, if you want to influence further at the top, you have to go through this chain of command, and that can be incredibly restrictive.

To me, the best organizations in the world are where people have this because it’s a way of organizing a company or a community, but fundamentally, people can thrive at any point in the chain. If you have this, you fundamentally restrict what people can do.

So, the person, in my mind, who started thinking…like kick-started the way in which…the way I’m advocating here is this guy. He’s called Stephen Covey. He wrote a book called, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” which I thought was gonna be a horrendous self-help book, but it’s actually a really fantastic book. I encourage all of you to check it out. And he basically says that leadership is behavior, it’s not status. And if you instill and understand those core behavioral properties, then what happens is you get better leaders.

How we think

Now, the way in which we should think about this is psychologically, our brains are somewhat divided into two broad areas. This was written about in a book called, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” The System 1 thinking, which is your automatic reaction, like, if a lion jumps out from behind this table, which would be weird, I’m gonna immediately flinch and run away. It’s autopilot, your bias. And then, System 2 is our normal conscious thought.

Now, Covey doesn’t talk about this in his book, but fundamentally, what he’s talking about in his philosophy is the System 2 is all of the…you know, this kind of stuff about learning, how to react in different situations. System 1 is about understanding those core principles and values of what great leadership is. If you get System 1 right, System 2, by definition, will be more effective. Okay? So, this is the way I tend to think about it.

So, what we need to think about, therefore, is, “How do we do this?” To me, the way in which, once we identify those principles, is we have to create an environment where you experiment, where you practice, where you’re exposed to problems, and where you’re validated, right? So, if one of those principles, which I’m gonna walk through in a second, is, let’s say, listening, we need to be able to learn how to listen effectively, practice how we do that, expose ourselves to situations where we have to listen to other people more effectively, and validate when we do it well and when we don’t do it well. This is the core principle of how I tend to think of it.

So, what are these leadership ingredients? Now, people write books about this, there’s thousands of books on this. But these, in my mind, are the six ones that are most important. I’m gonna walk through these, one by one.

Six leadership ingredients

First one, listening. This is something I struggle with because, like many of you, I’m paid to talk to people. I spend a lot of time talking on the phone with people. I don’t necessarily just listen. And also, frankly, and I don’t wanna use any inappropriate language here, but I’m a gobshite. I like talking. I think it’s fun and I want people to listen to what I’m saying. So, I have to force myself to listen more effectively to people.

One person who’s really good at this was Barack Obama. People would often say that when he was in meetings in the Oval Office, he would sit there quietly asking questions and making sure that everyone in the room got an opportunity to feed in. So, he could see the issue from all angles before he weighed in because he knew the weight of the office that he represented as well. So, this is something, I think, is critical import. The best leaders that I’ve ever worked with are great listeners.

The second thing is decision making. This reminds me of a quote that I read a while back from a Jewish philosopher in the Middle Ages, who I can’t pronounce, called Maimonides. “The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.” I think leaders demonstrate, often, analytical properties and what happens is you can spend hours trying to choose between these different options. And while you’re not making a decision, you’re being indecisive, even if you’re doing your homework at that time. Sometimes, you have to make a decision in a situation where there is no good decision. You just have to pick the least worst decision. And it’s really hard and it’s something that requires a lot of practice.

The third thing here, getting shit done. This seems pretty obvious, but people who lead and they don’t actually deliver any results, well, they don’t tend to last very long, hopefully. I am a enormous Iron Maiden fan. And the guy on the left up here is the manager of Iron Maiden, he’s called Rod Smallwood. They have these incredibly elaborate world tours where that plane behind them, they fill it with gear and their crew, and the lead singer flies the plane, and they go all over the place, in one of their world tours. Up the Irons. All right.

And this guy was asked by a journalist, like, “How do you pull off these incredibly elaborate tours?” And he said, “It’s quite simple, really. I just make a plan and stick to it.” The “making the plan” bit, everyone in this room is really good at, the “sticking to the plan” is where it gets really hard. And I think, that is one of the key things, as well, is a lot of great leaders are not just about formulating strategy, but it’s then, actually, really kind of following through and hold themselves to it.

We’re all human

Humility. Again, this is something that may seem…these should, hopefully, all be obvious. I think a great example of this is GitLab. A while ago, GitLab had a meltdown with an infrastructure, everything went wrong with, I think, it was like a database upgrade or something. Instead of battening down the hatches and shutting the world out and then pushing out the predictable press release that says, you know, “We apologize to our users for the downtime, blah, blah, blah,” they created a YouTube live stream, and opened up a live Google doc, and invited the community to feed in and participate. It was such a remarkable demonstration of humility that: “We’re human. We screwed up. We’re gonna fix it.”

And I think we need to see more of that kind of stuff. It really stands out in my mind. It’s either just a brilliant reaction to a crisis situation or incredible PR. It’s one of those two, I’m not sure which one it is.

Conviction. I’m gonna annoy half the room with this one. I’m a huge fan of James Comey. Some of you hate me now, some of you love me now. I think he was put into an impossible situation a number of times when he served as the Director of the FBI. I just read his book. I was on vacation last week and read it, and it’s fantastic. And one thing that comes through consistently, what he talks about is his number one priority was maintaining the objectivity and the independence of the FBI and the Justice Department when people were pushing him, politically, from all sides. And he followed through with that conviction, with great personal career damage, and putting himself in a pretty awful position.

To me, this is really important. Sometimes, you have to make decisions as a leader, I think, that either are financially don’t make sense or they compromise your career in some capacity, but it’s the right thing to do. And I think when we see other people do that and when we do it ourselves, it’s pretty inspiring.

And then, the final one is self-awareness. This is something, just to be completely honest with you, I struggled with for a while, like earlier in my career. As my career started going in a direction I wanted it to go, I was of the view that I should not talk about making mistakes or talking about failure, that I should hide that, that I should present an image of ultimate professionalism. And it’s rubbish, you know. We all make mistakes. The greatest leaders in the world make mistakes. And we need to be aware of that, and open to the fact that, as human beings, we are imperfect and we err, and that’s fine. And that’s actually how we become better.

Two books that I love, that I’d recommend, I’ve already talked about “The Seven Habits,” but the…I’m a huge fan of this philosophy called stoicism, which basically trains you to handle failure and difficulty in all of its multitudes and forms. It’s like wrapping a rubber band around you that keeps you focused and psychologically, you know, I wouldn’t say safe, but it keeps you psychologically productive when you deal with tough situations.

How to build a leader

So, this kind of gets to the next point which is, so how do we build the great leaders? What I’ve got till this point is we are animals, we operate in ecosystems, we need to be mindful of the fact that…we need to be able to lead in an environment with other people in a way that is value-based and principle-based. And we’ve walked through what I would consider to be some of the most important principles. If we get that right, then all the decision-making after that really, fundamentally, is gravy.

How do we do that? How do we put this into action? I actually think this is relatively straightforward. And this is an approach that I’ve tended to use myself, which is broken into three parts. The first piece here is that we… I think we need to limit the scope and the focus of how we encourage leadership in our communities. I think there’s two basic areas here, execution and policy, right? So, I’ll give you an example.

When I was leading the community team of canonical for Ubuntu, our governance infrastructure…we set a very complicated governance infrastructure in the community. And some of it, well, pretty much all of it, was focused on policy. What happens when someone becomes an Ubuntu member? What does the code of conduct look like? How do we deal with conflict? What’s our attitude with trademarks? How do we manage trademarks with hundreds of community teams all over the world? None of it related to what features go into Ubuntu. And I don’t believe that that should be the case.

So, to me, what’s important is to, first of all, limit the scope of leadership, as you’re growing it out, to areas of policy, primarily, at first. The last thing you want is to build a community where a “leader” basically has to use a rubber stamp for someone to get a pull request in. That’s not going to work. But the other thing is it provides a limited enough scope where people can experiment and they can validate their experimentation in an environment that’s somewhat limited, that they’re not going to accidentally go nuclear and destroy a bunch of things. So, that’s the first thing. I think it’s really important to focus.

The second thing is around providing effective coaching. So, to me, the best way to develop leadership is one-on-one mentoring. I see loads of people who write, like, all of these leadership guides and leadership training courses and stuff like that and, you know, live and let live, rock out with that. Personally, I find the most effective way is when you have a relationship where one person has got an appetite for learning and another person’s got an experience of that topic, which is leadership, and they can build a relationship, and they can mentor, and they can move forward. To me, it’s incredibly powerful.

So, the way in which I think we do this is that we first of all focus on those core principles. It’s not about learning how to hack your way around a situation, it’s not about building a mental bank of “If this…then that” statements of what happens when this person does this and this person does that. It’s about focusing on those core principles and what they look like in action. Then having one-on-one mentoring which, to me, is best often, you know, calls, video calls, discussions, and that it’s two-way.

Leadership is a two-way street

You know, when I’ve done this with people, I always start the conversation by saying, “As we do this, this isn’t about me just basically imparting information, I want this to be a discussion. Like, tell me where you think I’m wrong, tell me the problems that you’ve been having, tell me the areas in which you wanna improve.” That’s the most important thing. And you get that two-way feedback loop. And in doing this, is putting this into place where you set an example. And in many cases, particularly for leadership, this is setting an example of failure and how you’ve got over failure. All of this, of course, has got to add to some kind of significant value, right? If that person who’s involved in that mentoring isn’t getting good results and isn’t putting those results into action, then it doesn’t mean anything.

And the other thing, I actually had a conversation with someone earlier today, one of my clients, about this, is like, when I’ve coached people around this, I’ll say to them upfront, “There’s gonna be some days when you’re gonna get bollocked. Like, you’re gonna do something and we’re gonna have to have a conversation where you need to try harder, you need to work harder,” and we all need to be in that position. Like, I’ve had people who mentored me and they’ve said like, “Jono, pull your finger out. You can do much better.” So, I think we really focus on that mentoring.

And then, the third piece is to turn the tables. This is where you scale. So, at this point, the mentor and the mentee have got such a tight relationship that they’re focused on the right kind of principles, it’s a frank two-way discussion. And what happens now is you need to be able to scale it. So, what happens when, you know, if Van and I are in this room…if he’s mentoring me, that’s a one-on-one conversation. But what happens if there’s thousands of people in your community? That’s not gonna grow very quickly.

The way in which we scale this is we have to train the trainers, and then they can train more students. And to me, the way in which we do this is, you know, the student becomes the mentor and you have to pick the right time to do this. It’s got to be at a time when that person, frankly, is at a point where you can reasonably take, this is gonna sound horribly condescending, but you can reasonably take the training wheels off. That people can go forth, that they’re needing your guidance less and less, they’re challenging you less and less because you’ve, kind of, got this shared perspective, and their confidence, you know, they’ve become the lobster who’s become dominant in their own world, not dominant in a violent sense, but they’re able to go out there and lead and be effective.

Beware the governance paradox

So, picking the right time is critical because if you get it too early, and one of the mistakes I’ve seen in a lot of open source communities, is they’ll set up these, kind of, like, mentoring initiatives, and the first mistake is they’ll ask people to volunteer to be mentors. Don’t do that. Because, again, you’ll get the governance paradox. You’ll get certain people who wanna be in a position of power, in a position of influence. Just because someone says they think they’re a good leader doesn’t necessarily mean they are. And throughout all of this, I’m not necessarily saying I’m a good leader, I’m just sharing my opinion about this. You can be the judge of that. So, picking the right time is really important.

The good news is that when you start doing this, it’s really hard because it’s, you know, just a couple of people and then you slowly start growing it. But, of course, you get that exponential impact where the more people start growing, the more mentoring starts happening, and then you just end up building a very, very powerful leadership capability in the community or an organization.

And the third element of this is coaching people through that. Like, the way I’ve done this previously is when I have kind of been mentoring someone and then we want them to become the mentor, is that I will give them guidance on how to be a mentor because they’ve probably not done it before. So, an element of this, then, is not just, you know, helping them to turn the tables, but it’s helping to guide them through that process as well. And then, of course, they, at that point, can then mentor other people to be mentors. So, you get this virtuous, kind of, loop that tends to happen.

And that’s pretty much it. I mean, well, the one thing I would say throughout all of this is when I first read in “The Seven Habits” about this “Principled leadership,” I don’t like the word “principled,” because it’s usually condescending towards other people. But, I think, it’s not so much about being principled in a “I’m better than you” sense, it’s about having a core set of fundamental principles that we’ve seen, through time immemorial, have served people who’ve led in multiple different environments, you know, obviously developer relations is a very modern science. But, we’ve seen this in politics, we’ve seen this in construction and other things all over the world. And I think when we get those things right, when we can scale them out, like, we can do in dev rel, it’s incredible in what we can accomplish.

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