Leading at Any Level

The concept of leading at any level comes up frequently and focuses on the idea that leadership isn’t the sole responsibility of those at the top an organization. This ideas happens to fit well with my definition of leadership in general, which is that you are a leader if you have anyone who looks to you for support, guidance, or trusts you with collaboration.

You might notice that I didn’t include anything about reporting structures, employment, or hierarchy and that’s intentional. I think that you can lead from where ever you are in your organization, because I don’t believe that “telling people what to do” is the ultimate expression of what it is to lead.

There are leadership tasks that will always be the sole responsibility of top-down leaders, such as vision setting or responding to crises, but the day-to-day work of keeping momentum and upholding values belongs to everyone. And in WordPress—where we have top-down coordination, but prefer to rely on leading by coalition—our most successful* leaders are those who understand how to lead from where ever they are.

The Pillars of Leading at Any Level

All parts of leadership can be taught, so if this concept is new to you I’ve got a quick list to get you started.

  • Supporting the Culture (or how we engage, motivate, guide)
    • Set an example – Guidance doesn’t start and stop with active advice that you’re providing. If people ask for your guidance, they will also watch what you do (or don’t do) to know what is acceptable in the community.
    • Set the tone – You are responsible for the tone you bring to the space. Meeting attendees, community members, and team mates will take their cues from leading voices, and it’s up to us to make our spaces welcoming and ethical.
    • Communicate clearly – Share what you know and don’t know clearly. When possible, be transparent about decision making so it’s clear that disagreements are safe and give people insight into the full journey.
  • Supporting the People (or how we train, enable, nurture)
    • Acknowledgement – Open source acknowledges good experimentation and honors past work. As leaders in open source we should also acknowledge our contributors by setting up in a space where they can fail safely (like new contributor meetings), and thanking them for their contributions.
    • Redirection – I think that solving the software’s biggest problems according to users is always the primary agenda. Early redirection of passionate contributors can offset future resentments when their passions lie with non-priority things. Letting someone know that they can work on it, but we can’t guarantee it will ship is the right and ethical thing to do.
    • “Yes, and…” or “No, but…” – Respond to questions in a way that makes people feel comfortable asking. Encouraging exploration is part of how we commit to the open source idea of good ideas coming from anywhere. Respond to questions in a way that encourages future exploration for the asker (which can be hard when you’ve done it for the 100th time) and tells them that it’s good to ask. 
  • Supporting the Changes (or how we respond to crisis) 
    • Caveat: Many crisis responses require named leadership, but for those responses that don’t this list will help.
    • Be Balanced Differentiating between urgent issues and emergent issues is hard, especially if you don’t have the full context. But putting some thought into what the impact might be can be a good start.
    • Be Present – Leading in a crisis requires a lot of time and attention. Staying visible in public spaces (and not resorting to private spaces by default) is uncomfortable but necessary. When you have to have closed sessions, and you will, report back on what was said.
    • Be Judicious – Discern how best to combat the most urgent issue amongst many emerging issues. Knowing whether to fight a fire with fire/water/vacuum takes some practice, but at the very least have a sense of what will make a crisis worse.

* What do I consider a successful leader? Successful leaders aren’t defined by how many decisions they have to make or how many people report to them. They are defined by their consistent engagement with their community, that results in sustainable practices and proactive avoidance of burnout. Excellent leaders have made sure that their organization can survive long after they have left by ensuring they aren’t a single point of failure, by encouraging people to participate, and by committing to guarding their own resilience. And, in any organization where coalitions are key, successful leaders are those who when faced with making really uncomfortable choices, can help people find the reasons to commit despite their disagreement.

Have a thought? Leave a comment!