Lunchtime Leadership

Name inspired by Hithchiker's Guide joke about most work being done by random people while leaders are out to lunch. Notes on an approach to leadership that works for a post-organizational context of collectives, open ecosystems, exit > voice, guilds, squads and such. Covering ideas such as BDFxing.

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?

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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.