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.