RailsBridge was founded by a group of people who were experienced with open source. With intention and thoughtfulness, we applied open source practices to the creation of teaching events. In the past five years, RailsBridge has spread widely across the globe, spawning new workshops in other languages and other locations. We have strong patterns of enabling new leaders to step up and make change. We must be thoughtful on how we support those leaders to create a resilient organization.
The Power of Decentralization
“The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations,” strongly influenced how I thought about the early patterns of the RailsBridge organization. The book highlights the research of Tom Nevins, a cultural anthropologist specializing in Native American tribes of the Southwest. The introduction tells a powerful story about how, in 1519, the powerful centralized Aztec civilization was more easily and quickly conquered by Cortés, than the Apache tribes which withstood the Spanish for hundreds of years — a contrast of centralized vs. decentralized organizations:
A centralized organization is easy to understand. Think of any major company or governmental agency. You have a clear leader who’s in charge, and there’s a specific place where decisions are made (the boardroom, the corporate headquarters, city hall). Nevins calls this organizational type coercive because the leaders call the shots: when a CEO fires you, you’re out. When Cortés ordered his army to march, they marched. The Spanish, Aztecs, and Incas were all centralized, or coercive. Although it sounds like something out of a Russian gulag, a coercive system is not necessarily bad. Whether you’re a Spanish general, an Aztec leader, or a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you use command-and-control to keep order in your organization, to make it efficient, and to function from day to day. Rules need to be set and enforced, or the system collapses…
Decentralized systems, on the other hand, are a little trickier to understand. In a decentralized organization, there’s no clear leader, no hierarchy, and no headquarters. If and when a leader does emerge, that person has little power over others. The best that person can do to influence people is to lead by example. Nevins calls this an open system, because everyone is entitled to make his or her own decisions. This doesn’t mean that a decentralized system is the same as anarchy. There are rules and norms, but these aren’t enforced by any one person. Rather, the power is distributed among all the people and across geographic regions. (Brafman & Beckstrom, Locations 254-268)
On reflection, I believe the title of the book is misleading. The so-called leaderless organizations actually have very strong leadership; however the leaders are chosen in ways that are independent of a traditional hierarchy, power is distributed, and leadership can emerge from any individual. The book describes many different organizations with non-hierarchical leadership models. The Apache tribe model of leadership is particularly inspiring, leading to resilience in the face of genocidal attackers.
Instead of a chief, the Apaches had a Nant’an—a spiritual and cultural leader. The Nant’an led by example and held no coercive power. Tribe members followed the Nant’an because they wanted to, not because they had to… Coercion is a foreign concept. The Nant’ans were crucial to the well-being of this open system, but decentralization affects more than just leadership. Because there was no capital and no central command post, Apache decisions were made all over the place. A raid on a Spanish settlement, for example, could be conceived in one place, organized in another, and carried out in yet another. You never knew where the Apaches would be coming from. In one sense, there was no place where important decisions were made, and in another sense, decisions were made by everybody everywhere…
Not only did the Apaches survive the Spanish attacks, but amazingly, the attacks served to make them even stronger. When the Spanish attacked them, the Apaches became even more decentralized and even more difficult to conquer. When the Spanish destroyed their villages, the Apaches might have surrendered if the villages had been crucial to their society. But they weren’t. Instead, the Apaches abandoned their old houses and became nomads. (Brafman & Beckstrom, Locations 269-289)
Working with Allies
Another path to a decentralized organization can stem from leveraging an existing network. The book highlights abolitionist, Granville Sharp, who worked with the Quakers to abolish slavery. He did not lead an organization from the top down, but rather activated an existing network from its edges. This is an effective paradigm that is embedded in the RailsBridge model where we ally with corporate and community groups to achieve our goals. However, we must look at his presentation as a cautionary tale. As someone who was for many years an active member of the Society of Friends (aka Quakers), I found it a little disturbing that the authors positioned the Quakers as a “platform” for Sharp’s abolitionist goals, largely ignoring the fact that slavery is inconsistent with the core tenets of the religion and the many activists within the Society of Friends who worked to highlight the hypocrisy and change the dominant paradigm. There is great strength when we tap into a like-minded network. If there exists a group that share values, but has not yet seen the light, then our ideas can spread like wildfire. We must be conscientious in crediting that organization with the creation of that network, the strength of its core values and openness to change.
Eric Ries, who named the entrepreneurial movement “Lean Startup,” is quick to point out that many people were practicing the art for many years. He catalyzed a movement by naming it, creating connections and a space for people to share their success stories and evangelized other people’s success as well as his own. When we tap into companies that seek to create a diverse workplace that is consistent with their own values, we should honor their initiative. Our incredible growth and strength can attributed to the openness and support of the Ruby community, where we had our start, as well as generations of women and people of color who came before us. When new organizations are inspired by our model, get their start at one of our workshops, or leverage our open source software and processes, we cheer them on and tell their stories.
Step Up, Step Back
We should not strive to be a leaderless organization, but rather one where any individual may step up and become a leader without seeking permission or being granted authority. I believe that every person has leadership potential, and every role within our organization, every volunteer task, allows people to practice and demonstrate leadership.
Open source documentation about the structure of the organization is intended to serve as an invitation for anyone to step up. We have such big problems to solve that there is plenty of work to go around. We have infinite possibilities for leadership roles. However, even an open process can appear opaque from the outside — documentation is important, but not sufficient. Each experienced leader must also invite new people to step into a leadership role, then step back into a mentoring role. When the new leader steps up, we have the opportunity to take a rest or step up to a new challenge. We seek to include a persistent, open invitation in documentation and presentations, and augment that message with in person communication.