BDFxing, Or Post-Charismatic Distributed Leadership

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Lunchtime Leadership

The management cultures I inhabit in my very-online blogger life tend to run a generation ahead of the ones I support in my very-offline consultant life, since I mostly support executives roughly my age (49) or older in traditional orgs. But sometimes, it is helpful to signal-boost management patterns pioneered by younger people, not just because they work better than old patterns in new media organizational contexts (Slack-based orgs for example), but because they work better, period.

One such pattern I strongly recommend you understand and cultivate in your org if you don’t already is the BDFx, or Benevolent Dictator for x, pattern, where x is a time period between an hour or a year or so. The limits vary by context. In various orgs I’m in, it tends to be days to months.

BDFx as a prescriptive term derives from BDFL, L for “Life,” as a descriptive term. That term is old and dates to 1995. It originated in the Python community and is now generally used to describe the condition of an open-source leader who may find themselves saddled with more, and longer-term, expectations of selfless (bordering on martyrdom) leadership than they may want. The condition of the BDFL is captured by this famous xkcd cartoon.

You see, actual leadership is a thankless job even when you’re motivated by, and being rewarded with, great wealth (stock etc), power, and fame (being US President, a Hollywood producer, etc). As I’ve argued before (in a 2015 post) most leaders motivated by those things don’t actually lead. Instead they indulge in a theatrical grifter activity I call leadering, which delivers the rewards without requiring them to deal with the responsibilities. In the open-source world, since these adverse selection incentives are mostly missing, you see more actual leadership, but also more honest appraisals of what leadership is. And more willingness on the part of people who do it to say fuck you and walk away when the job goes from being merely thankless to attracting things worse than ingratitude, like resentment and unfair blame. If you’re toiling away in thankless obscurity with no wealth, fame, or power anyway, the only reason to accept martyrdom is if you’re either a masochist or a true saint defending the world against serious pain. Which is sometimes the case but far rarer than it might seem, since fake saints are ubiquitous.

Now what’s the alternative to selfless leaders being burdened beyond endurance, to the point they say fuck you and walk, causing things to collapse on the rest of us?

The usual answer is some sort of collective responsibility mechanism where everything is done by consensus or voting or something. In theory. In practice, even deliberative decision-making is hard to collectivize in such symmetric ways, let alone execution that demands imaginationor judicial functions that call for discerning thoughtfulness. Tyranny of structurelessness etc. Only a dimwitted idealist sophomore could ever believe in that.

But concerns about people who want to be BDFL are real, because you know they’re almost certainly (99.9%) in it not to selflessly lead, but to extract selfish value from a theater of leadering. At best, they will do no harm. At worst, they will lay waste to everything in pursuit of thinly veiled pursuits of money, power, fame.

That’s the order of dangerousness by the way. People who merely want money can be contained by financial incentives. People who want real power for malicious ends can be contained, at greater cost, by the real dynamics of power and the need to find competent allies with enough skill (and their own divergent agendas) to exercise power at scale. But people who want fame; who are solving for legacy and posterity; who feed off the theater itself… in many ways these are the most dangerous. If in addition, they also want real power and wealth, everything gets exponentially worse. And the deeper we go into the age of escaped realities, deepfakes, and the internet of beefs, the more dangerous fame-seeking leadering gets.

We have a term for people who solve for fame first, and power and money second: charismatic leadership. When it emerged in the early 80s, with Reagan, Thatcher, and Jack Welch, following a decades-long era of a retiring, self-effacing form of leadership Robert Greenleaf called Servant Leadership (tldr: Another dumb and idealistic model that doesn’t work), it was a term of approbation. Charismatic leadership was what the world needed, or so we thought. That idea evolved from Reagan/Thatcher/Welch through Clinton/Obama/Jobs, to Musk/Trump/Thiel/Putin/Xi. Just the trajectory in that list of names should indicate the problems. It’s not that charismatic leadership used to work and has now stopped working. It’s basically never worked, but it was possible to hide the fact near-perfectly in a broadcast world, got harder in a social media age, and is now basically impossible in an AI/decentralization age. The myth-making narrative apparatus that charismatic leadership relied on now produces threadbare plots with cartoon characters only cartoon people can believe in, at best. At worst it falls apart completely, often revealing pits of depravity beneath the myths. Often, the nihilistic response of the newly betrayed charisma-theater-hungry is to shift allegiances to the openly depraved. The failure of charismatic theaters of nobility is often complete destruction of the ability to believe in any level of even ordinary goodness and decency, and a perverse addiction to theaters of snowballing depravity. When your idols are revealed to have feet of clay, it can be easier to believe we’re all monsters (and give yourself permission to be one) than to believe in ordinary, non-superhuman mortals with mediocre, limited amounts of decency and morality to offer.

Yes, I believe Great Man theory is utter bullshit, an illusion that’s an artifact of low-information narrative environments. I also believe Straussian models of society are not-even-wrong self-congratulatory conceits harbored by self-important priestly types.

Which should make you wonder: Why on earth do you need to believe in mythic godliness and messianic martyrdom at all? The only good reason is if ordinary flawed humans are not enough for you, because you have no independent and satisfying understanding of the world or how it works, outside of fairytales spun by charismatic grifters. Because if you can believe others are gods, you can allow yourself to be a child.

So where do we turn? Enter the BDFx. The post-charismatic distributed leadership model.

BDFxing is a leadership model that is self-consciously time-boxed to be within the limits of human endurance, morality, decency, and fallibility. I previously argued that CEOs don’t steer, but provide high-momentum, orientation-locked dead reckoning in a stable direction. That when a leader turns out to be wrong, the right move is usually not for them to steer and course correct, but to step back and yield to someone else whose sense of direction seems better for the changed circumstances. Which means the culture has to foster lots of leaders-in-waiting at all levels, ready to step up. BDFxing turns this idea into a high-frequency design pattern.

The first golden rule of BDFxing is: If you need to steer, you need to stop. A BDFx drive should be a straight-ahead charge at something that needs an intense spike of organizing and leadership.

The second golden rule of BDFxing is: If you can’t be trusted to lead some times, you can’t be trusted to follow the rest of the time. BDFxing demands more of everyone all of the time, but less of anyone when they are in charge. It requires raising the floor of participation to “functional adult” in order to lower the ceiling of effort on leadership work to “manageable by humans.”

BDFxing is a pattern that has emerged (not surprisingly) in the crypto world, and in adjacent spaces that use the ideas, if not all the technologies, like Discord-based groups. In these spaces, many worthwhile activities and initiatives often fall into, and languish in, the no-man’s-land between theatrical or real BDFLs on the verge of failure, and collective action mechanisms that are incapable of acting. And since bleeding-edge protocol technologies literally don’t work if you can’t make the leadership model distributed too (see: Conway’s Law; many people have to run all these “nodes” these architectures rely on), BDFxing emerged as a way to semi-ironically announce that you’re unilaterally taking the initiative to lead an activity through a challenging regime where it would fall apart without leadership, and actually doing it sincerely, and then quitting when the need has passed.

Just enough leadership injected, when it is needed, where it is needed.

In the beginning BDFxing was seen as an anomalous and worrisome thing that should not be needed in a healthy distributed org, and ought to be designed out, but it is now clear that’s a naive, utopian expectation. BDFxing is a necessary, load-bearing element in even the ideal notion of a distributed org. It is theoretically necessary, and elegantly inevitable; it is not a hack or patch to a loftier, nobler ideal of a “leaderless” org. There’s no such thing as a leaderless org. Not even as a coherent thought experiment. That idea was a fever dream of the aughts. But there is such a thing as an ephemeral/transient-leadership org.

Believe it or not, for most things, leadership is not a continuous need but a sporadic need, with each episode being somewhat unique and exceptional. Most things muddle along just fine without leaders, most of the time. Leaders usually get in the way when they don’t realize their job is not to steer but defend momentum. It’s better not to have them, because when they ignore momentum and try to steer, they create drag and make things worse. I’ve gotten radical on this point. Even in an ordinary org with no special architecture, 80% of activities don’t need to be led 80% of the time. If that doesn’t seem true there’s a better chance the org or activity is dysfunctional and possibly shouldn’t exist at all than that it is a real exception. A need for continuous leadership is a sure sign of organizational malaise; likely of a cancerous variety.

What’s more, on the infrequent occasions leadership is needed, it’s rarely of the same sort twice in a row. Usually things turn out best if different people step up to drive the activity through a new challenge. Exceptional circumstances usually point to exceptional traits in specific ordinary people who might be well-matched. The giraffe leads when the problem is high up, the mouse leads when it is down a long hole.

BDFxing works better with distributed/decentralized organizations built on top of distributed/decentralized media. The mark is bottom-heavy anarchic communication flows (chatty-bottom orgs), hence the correlation with messaging media like Slack or Discord, and anti-correlation with email or meeting-heavy cultures that feature inconsequential, non-mission-critical chatter at the lower levels of the communication stack (if indeed these levels are enabled at all; there are still plenty of orgs with no Slack-like messaging bus layer and even physical watercooler culture sharply curtailed).

To back up my assertion, it’s not just a medium-is-the-message effect. It’s not that orgs that have low-level messaging infrastructure do better with BDFxing patterns. Orgs built that way outcompete those that aren’t wherever head-to-head competition occurs. In many cases, orgs with silent lower levels, enforced by a need-to-know culture of siloed secrecy, only win because BDFxing chatty-bottom orgs haven’t spun up to compete yet.

Series NavigationFour Modes of BDFxing >>

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. As the origin story of the BDFL goes on, the BDFL retired, Python-Dev voted for a PEP which instituted a new leadership model, called the “steering council” (sic!), an elected high aristocracy of sorts:

    Most case decisions are made by a lower court or a single “sponsor” who approves or rejects a change request. The whole development process is great. It is a classical waterfall model of which a whole generation of programmers was told it is obsolete.

    Anyway, what works in Tech doesn’t work in politics, for the simple reason that the powers and the law of the land is either unitary or you have factions which are at war with each other. It is not possible to fork the USA other than doing a secession with the consequence of two rivaling powers at their respective borders. If a secession / fork happens in Tech, then so what? A split community and a legal issue with the trademark rights.

    I don’t believe that libertarianism which is an attempt to substitute politics / the state with an economy will ever work . The inverse pattern was socialism which didn’t work either. There were other replacement attempts which kept the state but replaces politicians with philosophers or scientific experts, or priests, which also hasn’t worked out. The various replacement attempts show that politics is perceived as an evil, but their failure implies that it will continue to stay with us. I also believe that all attempts to deconstruct the great-men-of-history are ultimately doomed. Maybe they can be refactored?

    • “… was socialism”? Actually that inverse pattern is not actually socialism but a state-monopolisation (arguably meant to be a staging point to genuine socialism). Socialism for people who actually are such, is much more like the BDFx model being described here. Just as an indicator of this, think about the word ‘soviet’. It is a council, it was used of workers in decentralised units, making decisions democratically, electing leaders for particular tasks, and having control of the means of production with which they worked (that’s a bit that the BDFx model doesn’t mention, of course). Socialism in reality does not mean top-down command economy. We have the term ‘command economy’ for that. Meanwhile using ‘socialism’ as a term of opprobrium cuts us off from many insights about humane, care-oriented forms of organisation and leadership.

      • The collectivism is the critical element here and for socialist societies as a whole there is no way around abolishing economic freedom in order to prevent sliding back to bourgeois exploitation. It does not mean that social cohesion or workers solidarity does not exist or that there are no companies owned by their employees. I don’t deny this. A socialist society is organized by the communist party with the state being subordinated to her. In the GDR corporations where called “Volkseigene Betriebe” – roughly: corporations owned by the people. Since ‘the people’ are a totality they were naturally monopolistic.

        As far as Open Source is concerned I think Richard Sennett was right to highlight its ‘craft orientation’ which he defined as: doing things well for its own sake. Care and focus changes and hovers over various topics and projects, some of which are more primal and relevant to large crowds than others. The majority principle which is typical for our liberal democracies is not so common here because it creates only weak ties and why should anyone be a member of the ‘opposition’ instead of doing their own stuff? I generally expect either a BDFL leadership or a closely knit community – or a subset thereof – which tries to achieve consensus through arguments and demonstrations which also fits well with Sennetts ‘craft orientation’.

      • This sounds to me suspiciously like “real socialism has never been tried” and eliding all the tales of forced collectivization, quota tyranny,… the Red Plenty arguments. I think socialism when sincerely attempted devolves into tyranny of structurelessness OR gets captured by sociopaths who turn apparent BDFxing altruism into an autocratic power grab.

        The reason the pattern works in tech I think is that tech people are fundamentally not motivated by leadership/power. They want to solve particular problems and then go back to doing more fun things once the problem has been dealt with. I’m not sure BDFxing as a pattern can work unless there is a tech development boundary condition. Which is an argument for active involvement of public sector in tech development (and against privatization) … as a means to keep civic society more honest. When leaders are expected to actually solve problems, fewer people will want to be leaders for pure grift.

  2. Interestingly this dictatorship model is closer to the Roman dictatorship model before Caesar (c.f. for summary). Time-boxed dictatorship basically works until a dictator decides they don’t want to give it up. DAOs and other _hard_ leadership protocols might resolve this (and potentially introduce other failure modes).

  3. Maybe I fail to understand, (I’ll have to read again) the problem is that there’s no there there- leaders ought to be expert at the thing their organization does- so the CEO of a finance or manufacturing company or computing company ought to know their turf as well as being shrewd and emotionally intelligent.
    With something like a leader of a country, there is no thing, as far as I can tell they have to know and if there is, it’s impossible for one woman or man to master.
    I know people who are very good at being corporate leaders and that person has some backstage charisma (see Randal Collins on his blog) plus interpersonal dominance plus he knows finance better than Harvard MBAS