I’ve been lazing all week, thinking about as little as possible, spending time with my wife and children, spending time with close friends, spending time with myself.
And in that spending of time, a phrase I read somewhere came back to me:
Leadership is about taking the risk of managing meaning
There’s only a finite number of books it could have come from, so as soon as I remember the source I will update this post and let you know.
Leadership in that strange space where information meets technology is fundamentally bankrupt; that is, unless we as leaders can learn to take risks in managing the meaning of three key concepts: intellectual property rights; the internet; identity.
What do I mean?
Let’s take opensource as an example. As leaders, we allowed ourselves to be drawn into the wrong debate. As Richard Stallman said, opensource was never about free as in gratis; it was about free as in freedom. Yet supporters of opensource were quickly labelled as pinko lefty treehuggers, and we allowed that meaning to persist. Very quickly, opensource supporters were anti-capitalist idealistic utopian dreamers, while the rest of the world churned out the stuff that mattered. Apparently.
Opensource is about democratised innovation, about creating value faster than via traditional models. It is about better code, about Linus’s Law, Given Enough Eyeballs All Bugs Are Shallow. It is about lowering the cost of failure by its peculiar compartmentalisation. It is about creating affordable operating systems and software for the millions, the billions, that are underconnected because of closedsource operating models and business approaches. Opensource is about choice, choice shown in the very way the community moves and adapts and forks.
Yet for years we left so much of the value of opensource on the table, value that was denied everyone, from the BRIC individual to the large corporation. Those of us who call ourselves leaders have only ourselves to blame for that.
The same style of argument that was used against opensource is now being used in a different, but related, domain: intellectual property rights, covering copyright as well as patent. The discussion of the need to transform the meaning of IPR in a digital context is being shifted into one about free downloads and stealing.
The internet, or for that matter the World Wide Web, was not built as a new single-directional distribution mechanism exclusively for Hollywood. Neither was it built explictly to extend the pension rights of a few aging musicians and authors.
The internet is about a lot more than Western entertainment. But that is all it will be about, if we don’t take risks in managing the meaning of the internet.
The internet is not about criminalising everyone bar film and music production and distribution companies. Although it sometimes feels that way.
The same is true of identity. How discussions and debates about the meaning of identity in a digital context are reframed as attacks on privacy and security and safety in narrow “developed-world” terms. And somehow we allow this to happen with a minimum of fuss.
Why? Because we allow others to impose meaning on everyone.
Which is a crying shame.