"It's important to recognize that informal leaders do emerge. And in less structured, less hierarchical organizations, they are a key part of the overall management system." —Jim Whitehurst, The Open Organization
When considering just how an open organization functions, one must think about governance structures that allow for decentralized leadership and decision making. The system most commonly used in open communities is one of "meritocracy." Dictionary.com calls it:
noun, plural meritocracies.
- An elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth.
- A system in which such persons are rewarded and advanced: The dean believes the educational system should be a meritocracy.
- Leadership by able and talented persons.
In a meritocracy, leaders progress because of their demonstrated leadership abilities (not their formal titles). But how exactly do you gain merit in an organization using practices that aren't specifically related to your job function? For example, you might consider yourself "a developer," "a designer," a "community manager," and if you're great at your job (your coding skills, your aesthetic sensibilities, or management abilities) you'll will likely have your colleagues trusting your expertise in those areas. However, here are some more general behaviors that can establish you as a multi-dimensional leader.
Listen to people
It sounds trite, but take some time to reflect on whether you're truly listening to people. People in leadership development circles have identified three levels of listening, and humans shift fluidly from one level to another.
The first level is when you're talking to someone and formulating a response in your head at the same time. The second level occurs when you're so engrossed in what someone is saying, that you're attuned to someone else's emotional state. The third is a sort of atmospheric listening, when you hear the world around you. The trick to truly listening to someone is to stay in level two as much as possible. Don't formulate a response; just try to hear what a person is saying and understand how they're feeling.
Put yourself out there
Group dynamics can make being yourself very difficult. In social (and professional) situations, people tend to "turn off" aspects of their personalities in order to fit in. Although modifying your behavior to a specific context or situation might be necessary, you shouldn't go against your own nature. If you're outspoken, be outspoken—just try to modify your language to be empathetic and collaborative. If you have a strong opinion, state it, but consider how other people are going to feel about your choice of words. If you are naturally quiet, use one-to-one communication to help people understand your thinking.
Maintain your moxie
Not everyone communicates with kindness and respect. Many people don't take the time to reflect on their behaviors. Some people won't even realize when their communication style is abrasive. It can be painful to put yourself out there. You have to maintain your moxie and stand up for what you believe is right. If you feel attacked, address the situation. You shouldn't feel the need to hide how you truly feel, but sometimes it is more appropriate to speak to people in private. Be authentic—you are, actually, allowed to have human emotions. We can tell each other how we feel in a non-threatening, non-violent way.
To gain merit in an organization, you need to be intentional about seeking diverse opinions and perspectives from diverse people. Intentionally reaching out to people who can fill gaps in your knowledge base will earn you respect. You will learn where your own blind spots are, and you will empower the people around you. True leadership is all about empowering other people, so make sure you think of yourself as a learner.
Own your mistakes
In the open community, we hear the phrase "publish early and often" all the time. This doesn't just apply to software. Thinking out loud and admitting to mistakes you've made are important for gaining merit in an organization. People need to be able to see how both your thought process and your work have evolved. No one is perfect, but people who admit and reflect on their mistakes take away lessons that are applicable in future situations. Don't be afraid to say that you did something wrong. Own it.
In the end, if you want to gain merit in an organization, you need to think about the types of traits true leaders have. True leaders are unique, empathetic, and modest. Focusing on ways to develop those characteristics—which are important for anyone in any organizational role—will take you far.