…musing about leadership…

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.

[Update: A twitter friend, Scott Germaise, checked out the quote and found the precise book: The Art of Framing. Thanks, Scott!]

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.

8 thoughts on “…musing about leadership…”

  1. BRAVO!!
    I wish I had said that.
    (and to quote Monty Python – ‘you will Oscar, you will…’)

    that strange space where information meets technology

    is one of those fundamental pressure points that exists in many of the more interesting spaces I have been exploring lately – beyond the world of ‘CxO management’, in the frontiers of scientific research to the place where art meets science.

    The need for leaders to ‘take risks in managing the meaning of three key concepts: intellectual property rights; the internet; identity’ is what I have been banging my head against for the last six months.

    Consider me inspired to think more deeply and focus more sharply on those three areas as I try to manage meaning by creating prototypical examples of what might just be possible.

    Fang – Mike Seyfang

  2. Thanks for the comments, guys. I did see the earlier post, a year or so ago, about AIR forking the internet, but not the Stephen O’Grady post of yesterday.

    The web is bigger than AOL was; it is bigger than Netscape or IE were; and it will be bigger than AIR or Silverlight or JavaFX.

    But that does not mean RIA has no role to play. The web will work it out.

  3. re: “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.”

    I agree, and yet there are people who are making significant efforts to change the black/white nature of copyright and enable it for the Internet. It is all the more important to support efforts such as Creative Commons if you believe such statements.


  4. JP–to me. leadership is always about framing the debate in such a way to gain maximal support from a broad cross-section of the organization within the different stakeholders.

    More important is the point that your post implies….. beyond leadership.. To me, strategy is about framing the meaning of choices. One of the best discussions that I have had teaching strategy is to use Graham Allison’s book: Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is powerful to understand how decisions are framed and enacted. By looking at a major decision context, we can see how different insights emerge when questions are framed differently. The students love that.. and they get it….

    We have not seen that sophisticated understanding of strategy at the interface of information and technology. We still see it as an efficiency driver; we accept it as such–even if we know deep down that IT is more than that. Simialrly, many managers frame IT Strategy as supporting business strategy. Then, it becomes so difficult to examine how IT strategy can shape and create new business strategies.
    In short: we have seen little creativity when it comes to framing and understanding IT Strategy not just within enterprises but as it impacts the global economy.

    What we need is more systematic discussions and debates about IT Strategy and Leadership that go beyond context-free generalities. Truly, leadership involving IT in business contexts (including IPR, Internet and Identity) is more challenging and fascinating than what the current literature on IT leadership has addressed so far.

    If we fail to understand and frame IT leadership differently, we will leave lot more value on the table…

  5. JP,

    you say: “Leadership in that strange space where information meets technology is fundamentally bankrupt”. I disagree: you give as an Open Source as example: “As leaders, we allowed ourselves to be drawn into the wrong debate.” Well, no – the people who allowed themselves to be drawn into that debate are not leaders, they are laggards. There are plenty of leaders who realized that that debate was a diversion and went on to capitalize on Open Source.

    Similarly the leaders in the IPR domain are having arguments far more sophisticated than those about downloading and stealing.

    I’m not worried about the so-called leaders who head off in the wrong direction. Rather than impose their meaning on everyone, they’ll just get lost.

  6. You may be right, Martin, I have no wish to preach or argue with the converted.

    There are technology leaders who are laggards in adopting opensource. Their laggardliness does not make them non-leaders.

    When I look at the technologies used for the Beijing Olympics, there is much that does not seem opensource, many opportunities that appear to have been wasted.

  7. I was playing on words a bit (as is my wont). There are at least two definitions of leader: the person in front (eg leader in a race) and the person who sets the agenda (eg political leader). I agree that someone who is a laggard in the first sense can be a leader in the second sense, but my play on words was implying that they were not really deserving of the title of leader. So I would still disagree with the statement:

    “There are technology leaders who are laggards in adopting opensource.”

    and would rephrase it:

    “There are technology managers who are laggards in adopting opensource.”

    (Although I do like the oxymoronic quality of your statement.)

    Or to go back to your original quote “Leadership is about taking the risk of managing meaning” – the people who are laggards in adopting open source are not managing meaning, therefore they are not exercising leadership, therefore they are not worthy of being called leaders.

    Please excuse my pedantry, but leadership is a fairly rare quality and I guess I’m a bit over-sensitive to the term being used undeservedly.

    But, yes, I do agree with your underlying sentiment.

Let me know what you think

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