What makes a good leader of a participatory community

I’m very interested in what leadership lessons we can learn from the people who drive the successful peer production models on the Internet. What is it about Craig Newmark, Jimmy Wales, Rob Malda, Stewart Butterfield and the other pioneers of participatory media that make the brands that they’ve created so powerful?

Photo: heather

Yochai Benkler breaks down the incentives for participation in peer production models in a very sensible and fascinating paper called Coases’ Penguin and discusses the economics of collaboration in his PopTech talk now available on ITConversations. But there’s a missing thread in his analysis that I think is crucially important.

The creators of the platforms on which peer production unfolds must have some common characteristics that enable these reputation models to reflect back on the people who invest in the platform instead of the company, brand or leader of that vehicle.

No doubt the participants are what make the products sing. But there’s something in common about the way these shepherds have approached their products and their customers that create an environment of trust, utility, gratification, expression, community, etc.

I don’t think any of them one day woke up and said I want to build a massive community of people posting content. Rather they probably stumbled onto ideas that started in one direction and ended up a little different than what they intended. I wonder what it is about the way they approach problems and lead teams that made them capable of identifying where the sweet spot would be for their idea.

I suspect that all of them share a handful of key qualities that make them unusual leaders including things like…

  • Total dedication, focus and passion for the service the community is providing to itself
  • A laissez faire attitude toward conflict but quick to identify resolutions
  • Motivated by a desire to do something important, not by money. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves.
  • A very creative mind that thrives on solving problems though not necessarily skilled in traditional artistic disciplines
  • Collaborative leadership styles, the extreme opposite of authoritarian, mandate-driven leadership

I don’t think they are attention seekers. I don’t think they are self righteous. They probably were mischief makers as kids and grew up to be anti-authoritarian. I’m guessing they were heavy video game users at one point if not still and love to compete.

I’m sure all of them also understand the decentralized and collaborative mentality, not as a translation from another model but rather baked into the way they think about what they are building.

I don’t know any of these guys personally, so this is perhaps wasteful conjecture. But I’m very curious about how the mainstream media business is going to approach the idea of participatory and social media given the cultural chasm and even conflicting styles of the leaders in the two categories. So far, it seems, people like Rupert Murdoch (and Terry Semel) have been smart enough to let these companies run and let these leaders lead.

It won’t be long before mainstream media companies start rolling out their own concepts for participatory media models, and I suspect those ideas will often fall flat…and it won’t be because the idea is bad but rather a lack of the key qualities required to shepherd a community.

3 thoughts on “What makes a good leader of a participatory community”

  1. I’ve been enjoying your blog over the past few days. I just wanted to offer my perspective as a college student who uses Facebook… too much.

    I think leaders have to be really responsive to feedback from the community. When Facebook eliminated listing friends by schools, people were really upset… and that feature was back in a day or two. A couple months ago, at my school anyways, students concerned lately about who can see their profiles (employers, police), and Facebook added a whole suite of privacy functions. In general, they’re always trying to add more features, while keeping it really easy to use (and spend hours on).

    Whether for altruistic reasons or not, they’ve shown that they listen to concerns and try to solve them, usually within a day or two. And that builds a lot of trust.

  2. I sit fairly close to the Flickr folks. On one occassion, (while looking for pointers on how to get my property to grow) I talked with Stewart breifly about how he got started.

    Your dead on the mark.

    There’s also a few other stars that get aligned before things really take off, and a few unexpected hurdles that larger companies have to cross before they can make it as big, but yes, fostering that seed community takes a lot of hard, dedicated, devotion that is very rare.

Comments are closed.