culture, dark matter

Build a leadership culture

When we are at our best at Red Hat, we have a leadership culture instead of a management culture.

What’s the difference? My favorite example of understanding the difference is from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink.

blinkquote2The story is about US General Paul Van Riper, who is trying out some military strategies to see how they will work in the field. In the book he says:

“The first thing I told my staff is that we would be in command and out of control.”

Most companies have a culture of management. The people in charge are in command and in control of everything. Managers give the orders, decide the strategy, and the workers follow the orders, implement the strategies. This is the way 90+% of businesses work and have worked for a very long time. It’s a good model for lots of businesses. Keeps things running efficiently, keeps chaos in check.

This model does not work very well in an open source world. Why? A couple of key reasons:

1) In an open source meritocracy, the best ideas win. In my experience, senior executives rarely have the best ideas on their own. Not because they are dumb (well, sometimes they may be). But because the best ideas usually come from the people closest to the action. Those people feeling the pain or seeing the opportunities that are right in front of them. The smart open source executive has every channel into the meritocracy open, so he or she is seeing the best ideas, from all over, all the time. And then ensuring these ideas don’t get shut down along the way.

2) The open source world is about creation, not about control. Management culture is designed for control. And control and creation don’t get along very well. If you are a person who leads with your ideas, and some dude shows up to your party asking questions like “What’s the ROI on this concept?” or “How can you monetize this?” or “How can we ensure that no one steals this concept from us?” you’ll probably take your ideas elsewhere. And stop inviting that dude to your parties.

Control is about as anti-open source as you can get.

A good leadership model works more like the way General Van Riper set up his exercise… in command and out of control.

What does this mean? Set the vision. Set the goals. Clarify roles. Create a good work environment. And get out of the way–it’s innovation time!

General Van Riper knew that a central command could sometimes actually be harmful. Sometimes the data in the field about what is happening is way more accurate than the data that makes its way up the chain of command. So if everyone knows the vision/goals, understands their role, and you have put in place exceptional people that you trust, let them do their thing.

As a leader, your job is to make sure everyone knows what success looks like. Not to dictate how to achieve it. Leave that to the experts.

In a leadership culture, the best ideas can come from anywhere. And they will if you let them.

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


5 thoughts on “Build a leadership culture

  1. Chris – I think this post is right on! A lot of time and energy gets put into innovation programs, yet the management environment that supports and energises those programs is often overlooked.

    Posted by Jamie P | May 4, 2009, 3:25 am


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