Stop this Leadership Nonsense

Posted by woodpeck on 17 December 2019 in English (English).

I have tried, in the past, to explain to people that the board of directors of the OpenStreetMap Foundation is not a group that provides, or should be expected to provide, “leadership”.

There are no people to be led in OpenStreetMap, no worker ants who just wait for a missive from central command to start their contributions. Nor does the board of directors allocate vast amounts of funding to projects deemed worthy of support. The whole OSM Foundation, including its board of directors,is there to keep the lights on in OSM’s server room, and perhaps to fend off the occasional trademark or license violation – but not to “lead” anything.

Which doesn’t stop some people from making a huge cult around this idea of “leadership”. Among the questions asked of candidates to this year’s board election was one that went:

Do you have experience of managing a project or a team of people? Do you have any experience of coaching others to lead (i.e. managing managers)? How long have you been doing these things?

While it doesn’t say so explicitly, it is obvious that whoever asked this question believes that these are important qualities in a board member, and that members should consider this in deciding whom to vote for. And candidates dutifully obliged, listing their previous chief-of-something-or-other postings and leadership experience.

One (European, white, male) mapper was not deterred by this and replied:

No, I’m just a grunt. Despite coming from a relatively middle class background, I wasn’t born to lead the plebs. I’m not a manager, nor have I gone on executive training courses.

This mapper is now on the board of directors.

A mapper from the “Global South”, who expressed unhappiness about the (European/American, white, male) composition of the board, was asked on Twitter if he’d consider standing for election next time, and replied:

I’m not able to run next year because I do not have the leadership skills

We must stop intimidating people with this leadership bullshit! Asking for leadership experience for board positions gives you a board of streamlined corporate types (or people who have at least been filtered and sanitised by Western business thinking). But this is a project of hobbyists, makers, and activists, not a project of managers. You don’t need to attend a leadership class (where we control the syllabus) in order to participate.

By demanding such skills, we’re only making it more likely that the next board consists of privileged white males yet again. It is well known that women who are equally qualified to men will, on average, think that they are not as well qualified. It takes a huge amount of self-confidence (a trait the male of the species possess in abundance) to reply to the leadership question with “I wasn’t born to lead… I am not a manager” and still stand for the board. How many women in the same position and with the same qualifications will have read this question and thought “uh, maybe this job is not for me”?

I think that humanitarian organisations bear a large portion of the responsibility for this mindset. They approach the communities they want to get involved in with a “take me to your leader” attitude, and sometimes actively coach people in management and leadership skills so that it is easier to work with them as a group. It is quite common to read reports about successful humanitarian projects in which one of the proudly mentioned results is that they managed to train leaders. A hierarchical organisation with one leader or a small group of leaders is easier to deal with than a hive of individuals where everyone does what they want. And it may well be that this is the right approach if you want to run a humanitarian project. But OpenStreetMap is not that.

To be a mapper, you don’t have to sign up for training with the local chapter of some NGO – you can just do it. You don’t have to submit to anybody’s leadership, and you can be a great mapper and a great representative of our colourful and diverse project without one iota of leadership skill. OpenStreetMap does not have a hierarchy where people at the top tell people at the bottom what to do.

Installing such a hierarchy by making the board of directors a board of “leaders” (of whatever gender or skin colour) would be a terrible step in the wrong direction, away from what OpenStreetMap ought to be. We must stop deterring good people with this leadership nonsense.

Comment from mikelmaron on 17 December 2019 at 16:55

The English word leadership is meant in at least two different ways, and it’s particularly understood differently when translated. We’ve talked about this many times when you were on the Board, but it seems like it hasn’t really sunk in. It’s not a useful word to beat a drum about, if it actually means different things to different people. There are certainly qualities that are valuable in a Board member, and I don’t think it’s bad to dig into them.

What you are talking about in “leadership” is top down instruction. Of course that is not how OpenStreetMap works at all, and I don’t see anyone anywhere suggesting that. I agree 100% that OSM succeeds because it’s an environment where people are enabled to do the things needed to build our map together. Btw, yes, that means “hobbyists, makers, and activists” and also on totally equal footing “professionals” like yourself who have been key part of this project from day 1.

There’s another meaning of “leadership” which is better called facilitation. There is a direction the group wants to go in, but it takes energy to help everyone organize and move that way. For example, there are many people from across the community who want to re-examine tagging processes. When Andy Robinson stepped up in 2006 to create the Map Features page, that was “leadership” skill and energy. He didn’t tell anyone what to do, but did something and then worked with everyone to make sure their feedback was incorporated. Again this is about enabling the environment where people can build the map together.

Rory had a very honest response to the leadership question. But on the other hand, I think the qualities he shows in advocacy for diversity and inclusion in OSM shows that he will be productive on the Board, and yes display “leadership”, depending on how you define it.

I don’t think anyone is intimidated by the talk of “leadership”. I read the twitter post you refer to, and he probably has something specific in mind (which I just asked about on Twitter), that’s not about being a manager. You propose that women are discouraged from running for the OSMF Board by the talk of leadership, but that’s just your conjecture. Have you asked any women why they don’t want to be involved in OSMF? I directly hear that OSMF is intimidating because of the strident, divisive, reactionary, emotionally draining, uncompromising tone demonstrated in this and in your recent series of diary posts.

In closing, let’s leave debate about the word leadership behind, and not use it as another way to avoid dealing with the challenges we have in OSM. And one of those challenges is that we have no gender or geographic diversity on our Board. That’s going to take listening and hard work to address.

Comment from RobJN on 17 December 2019 at 23:33

Frederik, I think you have completely misinterpreted this. I also find the argument that leadership equates to white male as completely and utterly wrong. It’s actually very sad and worrying that you even try to make that arguement.

Mikel’s first paragraph is spot on. It’s not about “top down” but is instead about being able to listen to the mappers & users and then support them by steering an efficient OSMF and wider OSM community.

Nor does the board of directors allocate vast amounts of funding to projects deemed worthy of support.

This is a personal view of yours. It need not be that way. The OSMF could follow a differnt logic. For example it could decide to extract as much money and other resources from those willing to provide it and direct that money and resource into helping the hobbyist community.

The elections are a way for us to decide on this. In this case the mapper you refer to crept in as a board member by a very slim margin (0.2% if I recall).

But the key thing is people should be able to decide for themselves based on well reasoned and polite debate. I don’t think that trying to make this about race or gender is part of a well reasoned debate.

Hopefully most people can see that gender or race has nothing to do with leadership. Everyone of every race, gender or background has the ability to be a good leader (of any description) and all OSM members should be encouraging everyone to contribute to OSM and consider running for the board.

The fact that an ex board member is trying to push the idea that leadership equates to white male is very sad. As a society we should have dropped that logic many many years ago.

Comment from imagico on 18 December 2019 at 00:44

Ist ja mal wieder allerliebst wie die englischen Muttersprachler sofort aus ihren Löchern geschossen kommen, um ihre Deutungshoheit über die Begriffe zu verteidigen und ohne mal etwas länger über das Geschriebene nachzudenken den Verfasser gleich als Idioten abzustempeln, der alles missversteht und keine Ahnung hat.

Kleiner Ratschlag: Wenn Ihr den Eindruck habt, dass der Andere alles total missversteht, denkt vielleicht mal einen Moment drüber nach, ob vielleicht Ihr es seid, die mit einem Brett vorm Kopf herumlaufen. Zumindest sollte man dann nämlich nicht etwas von “being able to listen to the mappers & users” erzählen…

Comment from mikelmaron on 18 December 2019 at 01:38

I’m not defending the term leadership. I think it doesn’t work because it’s confusing. And that’s been part of a long running discussion when Frederik was on the Board.

Naturally, I agree with Frederik that OSM is not a top down project. There is space for initiative, and need for facilitation.

Anyway seems like this comment is basically saying I shouldn’t comment. Please know, I’m done hesitating in response when I see people talking about topics I care about in OSM.

And yes, I am listening. I’ve listened to Frederik many times, and we have plenty of common ground. And I read very carefully what he wrote here. I’m going to listen to women, and hear what they want out of OSM and osmf. I’ll even listen to you Christhoph ( though in this case you’re wrong, I don’t have a “board in front of my head”)

And btw I didn’t call Frederik an “idiot” (that was automatic translation of your words) or that he “misunderstands everything”. I wish that conversations could avoid ratcheting things up by putting those kind of words in other people’s mouths.

Comment from Tomas Straupis on 18 December 2019 at 06:58

Totally agree with Frederik. OSMF is a SUPPORTING organisation, it has NO CONTROL over OSM whatsoever (other than switching databse on/off).

OSMF has no say on where OpenStreetMap can or should go. People who want to lead OpenStreetMap will do so and it does not matter what is OSMF opinion on it. Similarly if OSMF says “let’s do this and not do that” - it has absolutely no influence on what members of OSM do or think.

Therefore the term “board” is misleading to say the least.

Comment from ᚛ᚐᚋᚐᚅᚇᚐ᚜ 🏳️‍🌈 on 18 December 2019 at 14:44

@RobJN, I think you have misread Frederik (“I also find the argument that leadership equates to white male as completely and utterly wrong.” #). I don’t believe Frederik is saying “being a white male makes you better at leadership”, but instead he is (I think) saying that what is called “leadership qualities” could be coded forms of racism or sexism. Marginalized groups have higher rates of impostor syndrome, or self-confidence issues. Telling them that you must be a “leader” to do big things in OSM, might make them think “I’m not allowed do that”. And that is bad. “grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man” has lots of results on Twitter.

I’m the (successful) candidate quoted here. Perhaps I was too flippant, or blunt, in my original answer. But the question sounded too “corporate-speak” for me. I have lots of OSM Antifa/anarchist stickers. If you’d like some, send me your address and I will post them. In case you’re wondering where I stand on “leaders”. Ⓐ⚑

Comment from smaprs on 22 December 2019 at 15:33

What I’ve seen in those years is that OSM value increased a lot. If it was a proprietary data base, it would worth billions.

So it seems natural start to hear about that of “governance”, etc, etc… Obviously many would like to take the wheel. Obviously many private corporations as well as governments would like to have a way to influence in OSM. Obviously there is a huge unbalanced representation in OSM as well as in OSMF. Because OSM values much more today. Many people in ant works made that value to grow. No that it’s grown, many particulars want to controll the product.

Comment from trial on 25 December 2019 at 14:13

mikelmaron “The English word leadership is meant in at least two different ways, and it’s particularly understood differently when translated.”

mikelmaron “ I’m not defending the term leadership. I think it doesn’t work because it’s confusing.”

RobJN “Frederik, I think you have completely misinterpreted this”

Christoph may have said that a bit a rude way, but if you, American-English white males ;-) - here the issue being American-English- are well aware that a term has several meanings and gets hardly translated, why are you using those words? Are you fully unaware that OpenStreetMap is a global project that tries to reflect the different cultures? And no, definitively no, we don’t have to be fluent in English to contribute to OpenStreetMap.

On the opposite when a questionnaire is written for people to apply for the board it has to be written in such a way that not only American-English white males feel confident to apply. Except if you want it do become the board of Facebook, MapBox and co.

mikelmaron “There’s another meaning of “leadership” which is better called facilitation.”

Then use facilitation instead!

Comment from mikelmaron on 28 December 2019 at 19:24

@trial I don’t know what you are talking about. I deliberately don’t use the term “leadership” in the context of OpenStreetMap because of this different understandings of the terms across cultures.

The questionnaire was made up of questions submitted by members of OSMF. I don’t think the questionnaire was in any way written in a way that encouraged only certain types of people to run – in fact the questionnaire was compiled after nominations for the Board were completed. In the future, consider adding your own questions there, if you think this year’s questions were not as good as they could be.

Yes, Heather submitted a question that used the term “lead”. I addressed my ambivalence about the term in my answer to that question. Frederik wrote this diary post in response to the question, fully aware that there are different understandings of the term from several Board F2F converstions about it, yet deliberately did not include his full understanding of the term.

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