Joho the Blog[2b2k] YouTube leadership - Joho the Blog

[2b2k] YouTube leadership

I had dinner last night with a couple of people writing a report on the future of leadership for a Very Large Company. I argued once again against the importance of leadership, at least in its traditional sense. I believe less and less that there is some masterable set of skills that constitute leadership, especially as the organization gets larger. Further, I think it’s almost always useful to replace the question “What skills does a leader need?” with “How should the group be organized to best achieve its goals?” Sometimes the answer to that latter question will be, “It needs as strong leader,” but more often the traditional tasks of leadership will be distributed among members of the group, or will become a property of the group itself. (For example, in a collaborative or emergent group, decision-making is a property of the group.) (Tony Burgess of Company Command mentions this line of thought in an article at the Harvard Business Review site. In a hallway of mirrors, he mentions my interviewing him for an article of mine that HBR is considering running.)

Last night, I gave the usual examples of Web leadership: Linux, Wikipedia, and Open Source more generally. These projects would not have been possible in a traditional leader-led organization. But, in addition to looking at large-scale collaborative projects as case studies of Web leadership, suppose we look at what we’re replacing traditional institutions with. YouTube is replacing traditional broadcast TV — not removing broadcast, but eating into its TV-watching share — and file sharing is doing the same to the recording industry. Yet these epochal changes were accomplished without traditional leaders. And these are not merely illustrative examples. Most Web users don’t have any experience of contributing to Linux, Wikipedia, or Open Source projects, but we do routinely encounter YouTube and music sharing. Most Web users therefore have direct experience of the power, success, and utility of leaderless change and leaderless institutions. In fact, anyone using the Web has that experience, because the Web only succeeded because it is leaderless. That experience of organizing without organizations (a la Shirky), leaderlessly, is defining the upcoming workforce (as the young love to be referred to as).

There are still domains and circumstances in which leadership matters. But we are losing — have lost — the assumption that groups require leaders to accomplish their mission. Increasingly, the need for a strong leader is a sign of a defect in the group structure.

19 Responses to “[2b2k] YouTube leadership”

  1. […] Joho the Blog » [2b2k] YouTube leadership […]

  2. From this, you make a living? 1/2 :-)

    Open Source projects have leaders – in fact, good open source projects are excellent studies in how to do group organization.

    Wikipedia is a cult. It runs off the petty-bureacrat type of leadership – and this is bad thing.

    YouTube is an ad business model – it sure has leaders in the sense that someone owns the site, and has put a huge amount of money into it.

    Sigh … I shouldn’t do this. No point.

  3. Seth– you said what I was going to say about Wikipedia. Petty bureaucrats, exactly. I think our esteemed blogger here is conflicted about style of leadership, since it is apparent (to me, at least) that good leadership in an organization is demanded.

  4. G, how can you say about Wikipedia “It is a cult”, “petty bureaucrats”. I’m lost — what do you, guys, refer to?

    Any pointers ?

    I agree with YouTube a bit — but notice that the area in which YouTube is significant for the culture is not led by any leader !

    Indeed Open Source has leaders — but if you try to compare Linus Torvalds to Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg — stop, stop guys — you miss the main thought …

  5. Mirek-
    Re: Wikipedia: Self-styled (and self-important) gatekeepers have proliferated on Wikipedia. When you try to add or edit a page under their purview, they remove your work or doctor your contribution to fit their sense of things. I could live with it they were proven authorities on the topic. But often they are not, and their main tactic is to engage in a you-put-it-up. I-take-it-down, you-put-it-up, I-take-it-down, etc, game, until you give up. It leads to useless political group-think. Try adding/editing a page about a Bob Dylan song, or an entry about Lost or Sex in the City. If you really want to get spanked, try contributing to a Beatles song page. Not to mention politicians. Try adding ANYTHING to a political or government leader’s page, even with miles of citations to support you, and your pitiful entry will bounce back to you faster than a superball. This is worse than government control. It’s control by Trolls– whom you don’t know and can never know. Tres weird, and to my mind, over.

  6. There is obviously a complex, hierarchical organization at Wikipedia these days. It’s fairly flat, with many governance rules and processes within its flatness, but it is unquestionably hierarchical. (Andrew Lih’s Wikipedia Revolution is terrific on this topic.) Nevertheless, Wikipedia would not have gotten to the point where a complex hierarchy — or “bureaucracy,” if you prefer — had to emerge had it been led in a traditional way.

    Obviously, YouTube is a for-profit business with owners and managers. But the growth of an alternative to broadcast TV is an unled movement. YouTube happens to have been the winner in enabling the movement (could be worse, could be better), but in a far more important sense, the Internet was the real enabler.

    And, thanks, Mirek, for your last sentence. My point was that Web leadership is different from traditional leadership, so, Seth, objecting that Open Source in fact has leaders is simply a misreading of what I’m saying; see the first line of my second paragraph, which talks about “Web leadership.”

  7. Mirek, I’m going to skip details, because I don’t want to seem to be quasi-spamming. I’ll just say, if you’re really interested, check out my Wikipedia _Guardian_ columns at the link for my name just above.

    David, I know the whole routine is two-stepping between grand pronouncements, and when called, retreating to trivialities. These are not “leaderless institutions” in any reasonable sense of the word, and desperately trying to find some way to claim the phrase – “Web leadership is different from traditional leadership” – shows the cart is driving the horse(feathers). Compare, e.g. “The US is a Christian nation”, in terms of a phrase which is commonly used with advocacy versus technicality. Calling a shift in markets an “unled movement” (“growth of an alternative to broadcast TV is an unled movement”) twists the material far enough to see through the threads. So when you get to a big conclusion of “But we are losing — have lost — the assumption that groups require leaders to accomplish their mission.” – that’s when the whole house of cards constructed out of bent terms can’t hold up anymore.

    I was musing, the sad thing is that there are real, interesting, statements to made here – but there’s not as much of a market for the reality as for the song-and-dance.

  8. Seth, as always your arguments would be stronger if you could manage to hold back your ad hominem urges. You might just once avoid implying that I don’t believe what I say.

    Anyway, it’s hard to know where to begin replying to your second paragraph.

    The usual examples of large, collaborative, Web-based phenomena (wikipedia, linux, OS in general) are without _traditional_ leadership. Or do you think Torvalds runs Linux (and TBL runs the Web) basically the same way Welch ran GE? More exactly, do you think there are no differences worth noting? Of course there are similarities, but surely there are differences.

    Nevertheless, the thrust of my post was (as you understand) about the leaderless development of large-scale alternatives to some traditional institutions, with the rise of online videos (i.e., YouTube) as my prime example. You are right that shifts in markets generally don’t need leaders. (Which means, I think, that you’re now contradicting your first comment, which seemed to say that those very same shifts _had_ leaders.) But, this is not a mere shift in a market. Markets consist of consumers. In this case, the market took over the development of the product, as well as creating the environment/ecology within which the product is distributed, evaluated, assimilated, and rewarded. (And, yes, commercial sites – especially youtube – inevitably have had a lot to do with shaping of the ecology). Furthermore, this product is of particular cultural importance. Usually when a market shifts, the market members don’t have the sense that they have brought about a fundamental change in a hugely influential and powerful institution without even needing a formal organization or leader.

    Finally, I think I’m right that the experience of having subverted entrenched institutions like the broadcast media, and having done so collaboratively and without a formal or even identifiable leadership structure, is a formative experience for the upcoming generation. They now know that some out-of-scale things can be done by _not_ rallying around a leader.

  9. David, for deep reasons, I think it is vital to have what might be called a sociological analysis. Of course that can be taken too far, which leads to madness. But it’s a simple fact that you’re in a certain business, and if you say too many things bad for business, you won’t be in that business for long (a circumstance which I view as a very tragic situation). What people “believe” is not simple – for example, when someone is said to be “in denial”, at one level they must know that thing they are denying is true, yet on another level they profess it to be false – so what do they “really” believe?

    Anyway – my point “that there are real, interesting, statements to made here” converges with your “[not] basically the same way Welch ran GE”. One can then go noting those differences, and talk about how *relatively* decentralized structures can work, or not (Wikipedia is pathological here, in my view). This could even lead into some ideas of interest to a corporate audience, in how accountability, responsibility, and funding work here – because all are present, in various forms. It’s not some techno pixie dust as in “the Web only succeeded because it is leaderless” and “That experience of organizing without organizations (a la Shirky), leaderlessly, is defining the upcoming workforce” (*ouch* – the upcoming workforce is being defined by bad service jobs, lack of security or outright unemployment, stagnant or falling wages, etc. – and businesspeople sure won’t pay to hear that, hence why sociology matters!).

    When you say “now contradicting your first comment, which seemed to say that those very same shifts _had_ leaders” – note what I wrote (emphasis added) “it sure has leaders IN THE SENSE that someone owns the site, and has put a huge amount of money into it.”. And the emphasis is to stress that if a word has many meanings, I’m trying to avoid conflating them – otherwise, one ends up with a word-salad that’s like cotton-candy for conference attendees.

    Further, I’m pointing out aspects that are in direct opposition to sentiments like “the market members don’t have the sense that they have brought about …”. Having a different set of big-money backers and corporations succeeding on a market shift is not exactly my idea of a grassroots revolution.

    There is some serious politics behind stuff like “subverted entrenched institutions like the broadcast media … is a formative experience for the upcoming generation.”. Ignoring who that is aimed at pleasing, in terms of packaging Very Large Companies as some sort of enablers of a proletarian vanguard, would make discussion even more unmoored than the various imperatives at work make it already.

  10. This is fascinating. There are so many points of entry to a discussion of leadership, goal setting, and achievement in the Internetworked world.

    Tony Burgess’ (any relation to the “Clockwork Orange” Tony Burgess, I wonder?) work seems orthogonal to the empowerment of independent agents in flattened hierarchies that is characteristic of web collaboration. Tony’s job is to nuke ’em until they glow, or find a kinder, softer way to win the hearts and minds of his avowed enemies. Enabling the broad-based, geographically unconstrained collegiality of company commanders is one of the gifts of the web. The DoD has never regretted their investment in TCP/IP.

    Appendix B of the US Army Field Manual on Counter Insurgency (December, 2006 http://www.fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-24.pdf ) has a great discussion of social network analysis. If you’re in the business of decapitating a hydra-headed insurgency, social network analysis is a great tool! It helps you understand who the leaders are.

    From visualization through actualization, every group effort relies on leaders to achieve its goals. Some leaders are anointed and some simply emerge to get a job done and/or to organize a group. This is true regardless of the hierarchical nature of the group.

    David, I think your chosen role as cheerleader for the ‘net (Go Web!!!) is necessary and that you do a good job at it. The way I read Seth’s frustration is that he thinks that your enthusiasm and the way you express it clouds our (we, the people’s) ability to know the truth about how things work. Your present venture into the deep waters of the epistemological significance of the information explosion and the shifting ground of scientific understanding of the universe and everything else is unsettling. As for me, I hope you always remember that there is no “a” in difference. Really.

    (One is tempted to stretch the spelling lesson to observe that “Hustler” and “Husserl” are not the same, but….) there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies. Really.

  11. Seth — I’ll read your column and skim through your page. I must say, I still do not believe in what you write here about Wikipedia (particularly before my next reading: Andrew Lih book), but — I admit not to pay enough attention to some processes there.

    However, from the frequent user perspective, I never, literally never experienced that sort of “distributed” cenzorships you described.

    What I believe strongly in, is that Web provoked a creation of such a kind of leadership that has nothing to do with the old-style command & control way.

    And I agree to call this “leaderless leadership”. Some of the best examples were given here (Tim Berners-Lee, Linus Torvalds or Jimmy Wales). And if you look into recent trends (I just finished Power of Pull by tercet of Deloitte guys) — this style of leadership (called “shaping”) will probably dominate the economy-to-come….

  12. Frank, Tony’s mission is not as you characterize it. For him (as I understand it), his role is to help Army units achieve their missions. Those missions may be to nuke and glow or to win hearts, but Tony’s job is enable units to accomplish _any_ mission they’re given. These days often this requires units that are leaderless in the ways that Army units traditionally have been leader-ful: the tasks of leadership are distributed across the group, although there is still a hierarchically-appointed leader who performs the traditional role when the situation or the bureaucracy requires it. But, what’s new and interesting is that the occasions for traditional leadership in these units are the exception or (when bureaucratic) of plodding value. So, I don’t see Tony’s work as orthogonal to webby collaboration. It’s obviously not exactly the same thing, because it’s real-world and embedded in the military, but it’s more parallel than orthogonal.

    Frank, I welcome Seth’s criticism of my ideas and interpretations. I do not welcome his aspersions on my character.

    Seth, your “sociology” unmoors you. It is based on an hypothesis that you apply without evidence, namely, that people who disagree with you do so because they are corrupt, not because they disagree with you. A major mainstream newspaper pays you to write columns, but I do not think that that explains why you consistently downplay the importance of the Web. And if I did think that — I don’t — raising the charge in _every_ critique of your ideas would only distract from the actual argument. So, can you see if you can get through a single comment without calling me corrupt? It really doesn’t help the presentation of your ideas.

  13. Mirek, just to make the point, plenty of people have lived out their lives in a police state without ever going to prison. That doesn’t make a police state an example of good government. And doing something like branding dysfunction as “functional functionless” is just obscuring problems by the use of numbing phrasing.

    David, “apply without evidence”? Au contraire, if you’re going to deny the general proposition that there’s an economy of influence, that’s absurd. And I anticipated your objection – “Of course that can be taken too far, which leads to madness.”. If one uses such an explanation for anyone, it’s meaningless (a big reason I don’t like “ego” as an explanation, because that can be said of anyone and anything, and so doing nothing). But the other direction, treating everything as if it were pure disinterested intellectual debate, is equally unreal in a world full of e.g. lawyers, PR flacks, bubble-blowers, bought-and-paid policy advocates, etc. You’re knocking down a strawman of taking something to extremes, and then refusing to consider a less extreme form might have validity. I can refute your point about me directly (and note I won’t get huffy, how-dare-you, I’ll just show it doesn’t apply) – I’m not in the business of being a web-critic (except very trivially and incidentally from being paid small amounts sometimes for writing). It’s in fact negative for me overall because of the attacks it generates. So I’m in virtually the opposite situation than you. There are people who make a business of being web-evangelism’s evil twin, but me, I haven’t been to a conference in years. And on top of it all, my column got canceled due to budget cuts!

    Regarding “get through a single comment …” – c’mon, when you start a post “I had dinner last night with a couple of people writing a report on the future of leadership for a Very Large Company”, that’s economy of influence in the very first sentence. Also, “In a hallway of mirrors, he mentions my interviewing him for an article of mine that HBR is considering running”. The word “corrupt” is emotionally harsh, and I haven’t used it here. I think there’s a nuanced difference between that, and the constraints of a situation.

  14. I don’t deny the effect of economics, sociology, ego, etc., on belief. Never have, never would. On the contrary, the essential insight of Heidegger’s I’ve taken the most to heart is that “care” (i.e., caring about what happens in every dimension) is at the bottom of all human awareness and life. So, I’m with you on the general principle. But if you want to debate my ideas, then debate my ideas, not what you think my motivations are.

    And fwiw, you could (and should) take my opening reference to dinner with a large company not as an attempt at self-aggrandizement but as an indication that I was (counter to your point) saying something that the large company did not want to hear. As for the “hall of mirrors” remark, I felt I needed to explain why I was mentioned in Tony’s article.

    Sorry to hear about your column’s cancellation.

  15. Dawid, it is certainly a rabbit trail off the the main path of the discussion on this post…

    But you just mentioned Heidegger in last comment….
    I was recently shocked and surprised by the book I recently bought at Librairie Galignani in Paris.
    I wrote about it here. I would be more than happy to know your opinion about that type of thoughts about Heidegger.

    Seth, I will think it over, what you just said, and will bring some reply. But not today — I’m quite tired after the day full of work and I go away from my computers :-) …

  16. I agree with YouTube a bit — but notice that the area in which YouTube is significant for the culture is not led by any leader !

  17. At the risk of blowing my own horn, I have spent the last five years looking at this (among other) issues, and am about to be awarded a doctorate for all that effort. The salient part on leadership per se is here, about half-way down, with lots more surrounding it for context (beginning with a look at the issues over 3,000 years).

    The short version: emergent leadership is environmental, not instrumental, and cannot be embodied in an individual. This is applicable only if the fundamental conception of the organization changes radically compared to that to which we have become accustomed over the last 100 years.

    The “hook” question I use when giving keynotes on the future of leadership based on my research is: “What is the role of a leader if it is no longer to lead?”

  18. Flat organisations have no leaders… please, don’t make me laugh.
    Both Egalitarian/Flat organisations and Authoritarian/Hierarchical organisations are control structures and both have leaders. The only difference is that the “flat” leaders… don’t have a badge which says LEADER on their chest. Instead, they are the hypocritical “everyone’s equal… but some are more equal than others” type. Watch any small “flat” group (typically left-wing/liberal/progressive) at work – and you see the rank and file deferring to their betters… even if they’re all sitting on the same level and holding hands in a circle! Authoritarian leaders honestly “command” whereas Egalitarian leaders dishonestly “help”… but regardless of style – both control.

  19. It actually replied my dilemma, thank you!


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