Four Modes of BDFxing

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

Made up a 2×2 after a long time. And am kicking off a new Lunchtime Leadership blogchain. Name inspired by Hitchhiker’s Guide joke about most work being done by random people who wander into offices while leaders are out to lunch, see something worth doing, and do it. BDFxing, the idea I introduced in the first part, is of course a core idea. It stands for Benevolent Dictator for x, where x is a time period between an hour (a meeting) to about a year. Happily it could also stand for eXecution, since usually it is execution needs that create leadership needs. The central dogma of Lunchtime Leadership is that most things don’t need leadership most of the time. BDFxing is one obvious implication of the dogma — that most leadership should be part time. Being a leader is fun. Just not 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Most of the time, for most things, there should be no leaders, and when there is, it should be a focused leader suited to the situation, who should only lead while the need exists. With a norm of people just walking away if they think somebody is trying to lead unnecessarily, which makes BDFxing a self-limiting pattern that resists the power-hungry. So the follower discipline corresponding to BDFxing is opt-in followership. If you don’t think something needs leadership, don’t follow. And everybody should be capable of stepping up to lead some of the time, in some way. A lot of my thinking here is shaped by the Yak Collective, which runs entirely on BDFxing and opt-in followership.

The “size” of a leadership episode could be measured as a product of stakes and energy. Ie, the value of what’s at stake times the energy output rate (in the sense of Andy Grove’s idea of “high-output management”) that needs to be put in for the duration, to make something happen. Here’s the 2×2 with the resulting for BDFxing archetypes (which are transient roles, not personalities).

Obviously, high-stakes, high-energy BDFxing makes for the shortest bursts of leadership, and the typical situation is when something that is the output of a longer period of leaderless activity needs to be converge to a launch event of some sort, calling for a Launch Boss. Too many decisions need to be made, too fast, for things to happen through consensus or deliberation, or go through judicial style review processes by lots of people. So somebody just grabs executive authority to drive the launch through. I used to play this role more in the past but these days it is too intense for me unless it is really short, like running a meeting.

High-stakes, low-energy BDFxing is needed when a collective effort has created a lot of great raw materials that just need a bit of creative catalysis to come together. Like a grain of dust being dropped into a superheated or supercooled liquid. I like the metaphor of a proto Frankenstein monster laying on the operating table, a bunch of parts that have been assembled, but aren’t coming to life. You need a lightning bolt of creative synthesis, but usually not in terms of content. You need a creative frame provided by a Lightning Conductor. I often play this role. Often all a mass of creative content needs to come together is just a 2×2 to structure or a spreadsheet it for divide-and-conquer finishing drive, and I’ve often been the one to supply the 2×2. Lightning conducting looks very similar to traditional project management, but is like doing only the fun creative part, because everyone manages their own work within the creative frame.

Low-stakes, low-energy BDFxing makes for the longest burst of BDFxing. At the Yak Collective, we sometimes refer to this as “tours of duty,” where entropy has accumulated somewhere for a while (like years), but it’s in a state where a few weeks of steady, low-intensity TLC will restore it to full vigor. It calls for a Landscaper. I personally think this is the most important kind of BDFxing, and the hardest to culturally incentivize. Lots of people are willing to handle intense 1-day launch events or less intense 1-week lightning conductor jobs. But one month of housekeeping at a few minutes to an hour a day is a pattern of entropy-arresting energy injection that is really rare, and correspondingly valuable. It is doubly valuable because when something is seen to be done in a disciplined way for a few weeks, other people form good habits around it, which persists even after the period of landscaper BDFxing ends. This is why we also often say about participating in the Yak Collective: 1 hour a week over 10 weeks is more valuable than 10 hours in 1 day.

Low-stakes, high-energy BDFxing is usually called for when something needs a marketing or PR “face.” Unlike traditional leadership where that is a high stakes performance in its own right, the BDFxing version is much lower stakes, since much less actually depends on the leader’s talents, but still calls for high energy. I like the archetype of Ringleader for this. In a circus, the ringleader has to keep the energy high and the energy of the show going, but it’s the acrobats, jugglers and other individuals who are responsible for the stakes. I often play this role as well, and have taken to calling myself a “frontman” when I do. By virtue of being a relatively better known mediocre influencer, in groups with less known people, I often attract more attention than I “deserve” for whatever is happening. Which means the job is really to direct it to the right places.

Everybody should try their hand at all four kinds of BDFxing, and figure out what they’re best at. And then do it for the things they are involved in to the degree it is fun. If nobody has enough fun doing the BDFxing to supply the leadership of the activity, the activity should probably just be abandoned. A leadership deficit that’s fixed by coercive force and misery poisons the activity and the outcome.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. Please elaborate on the follower side of the equation. It strikes me as obvious that a lot of energy can be wasted when followers spontaneously opt-out mid project for whatever reasons. The load then falls to fewer followers, who tend to fall like an exponentially accelerating domino chain. Perhaps the corresponding follower-side concept is that of an OIFFx – Opt In Follower For X, where a commitment to follow is given for the duration of X (time,event,etc…) a core of OIFFx’s are necessary for any kind of forward planning, I would think.

  2. Interesting thought exercise. And you say it’s effective in the Yak Collective. Leadership is one component of a collective enterprise. Is it possible to transition this 2×2 to something like a ship’s crew on a voyage? Or an auto production line? I can’t see this, but I’m open to an example. There’s a lot of evidence for specialization improving collective enterprises. And I agree that in small groups, leadership “nudges” don’t need to be full time. In large groups part time and intermittent leadership seems less useful. And the crux of the issue is how does this apply to deadlines?

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