Leadership in Open Communities: the founders document dilemma

Source: Suresh Fernando

Let me begin by posing a question: under what conditions, in the absence of a Founding Document specifying hierarchy or leadership, are we willing to explicitly grant someone status as a leader of a group?

I spent a few years of my life working hard to realize my vision for scalable, open, online ‘communities’. This vision was motivated by my noting that the principles of open source have demonstrated that there are some models where it is possible to massively collaborate. If we can massively collaborate to create the Linux operating system or Wikipedia, why can’t we collaborate to identify solutions for climate change or other global problems? I organized different online projects and participated in yet others but was unsuccessful in contributing to the creation of communities that come together collaboratively. Substantial reflection on why it is so difficult to work together resulted in the following realizations…

In order to better understand the issues at work, we need to outline the initial conditions:

  • The sort of virtual community I am interested in is constituted with a view to collaborating on the creation of something. What people are to create is undefined and needs, itself, to be co-created
  • There is no founding document
  • Virtual communities are distributed geographically so many participants haven’t met each other and therefore trust levels have not developed.
  • The groups are structured around the principle of ‘open collaboration’. This results in open boundaries which allowed anyone to enter the group, and the shared spaces that constitute the group.
  • There are no identified leaders. There is no stated hierarchy or any basis for anyone to listen to anyone else.
  • Virtual communities are highly rational contexts. Virtually everything is adjudicated via discussion and the reviewing of written documents. This is to be contrasted with environments where we can learn about each other through a host of different social cues that are the result of observation of others and the way that people interact with each other.
  • There is some impetus to come together. There is an over-arching idea that motivates people to work together whatever it might be.

What is the Founders Document Dilemma?

The Founders Document Dilemma is relevant for open environments that aim to co-create a set of rules; a constitution for a community, a business plan etc. It holds that in open environment, with the absence of a founding document and institutional hierarchy, one cannot create a founding document that everyone agrees to because disputes have no way of being resolved.

Let’s unpack this further. We can imagine working in a company where there is a mission statement. Let’s assume that this company wants to create a globally distributed team to co-create a global strategy. They decide that they need input from all regions of the world as well as participation from the mail room to the boardroom. The condition for lack of trust is in place since most people will not know each other since they work in different offices around the world.

As they proceed with their work we can imagine them running into disagreements about strategy. These disagreements can, however, be adjudicated by appeal to the mission statement. We can imagine someone saying: ‘I see your point, but the mission statement says X therefore it makes sense that we prioritize Y!’ Furthermore, in organizations where there is a hierarchy disputes that cannot be resolved via appeal to mission statements can be resolved by someone empowered to do so.

Implicit in this claim is that if everyone is equal, even if the intention is to converge on a singular vision, it will not happen. Why is this so? In my experience there are a number of different reasons that can give rise to disputes, some of which are peculiar to online environments.

Linguistic Ambiguity

What I mean by sustainable is not likely to be exactly the same things as what you mean by sustainable. What I mean by community is not likely to be precisely what you mean by community. This linguistic ambiguity leads to complexities in the formation of documents that people agree upon. These ambiguities, in many cases, do not reveal themselves until action based decisions need to be made; until there is a specific call for action that requires an investment in time.

A common strategy at the initial stages of the formation of virtual environments involves the attempt to converge on values. In addition to linguistic ambiguity as defined above the method fails on a couple of other counts.

  1. It provides no mechanism for adjudicating values that might conflict or compete with each other. For example, what if we all agree that ‘personal freedom’ is important while at the same time agreeing that ‘punctuality’ is important. If there is no work done to identify relations between values, this method won’t help you to make decisions.
  2. The sorts of values that people state, no one will dispute with. Everyone agrees at a high enough level of generality. Again, this does not support a decision strategy.

The Absence of Trust

Trust can, no doubt, be understood in many different ways. For our purposes, we can understand trust functionally as something that serves to mitigate our reticence towards working with someone, deferring to the decisions someone makes and so on. If we trust someone, we feel less of a need to fixate on our specific version of the vision. We are willing to work with others on their terms.

In open collaboration environments as defined, trust levels aren’t sufficient to motivate people to work on other peoples’ ideas. There are some fundamental reasons flowing from the pattern of interaction between parties in online environments that make it so. Precisely how this works is laid out in more detail in my piece Online Community, Reciprocal Consciousness and Trust

In addition to the above, there are a couple of other factors that need to be identified.

Variability of Motivation for Participation

I have learned the hard way that people participate in online communities for a number of reasons, and the structure of online communities makes it possible for people to participate in the community for purely social reasons. This is to say that virtual anonymity and the fact that it is an open, unregulated environment makes it possible for people to engage however they want and whenever they want. In some cases, therefore, participation is in conflict with the explicitly stated initial purpose of the group.


In a small percentage of cases participation is for the sole purpose of disruption. Needless to say this is exacerbated by the fact that boundaries are not controlled and anyone can participate as they see fit.

How Are Disputes To Be Resolved?

If there are disagreements in this context, how are they to be resolved? Hmm… well they can’t! There is nothing, formally, that can be done since there is nothing we can appeal to.

Non-Hiearchical Structures and Emergent Leadership

This analysis is relevant on different levels and not solely in open environments. The occupy movement recently championed the notion of no leaders and a non-hierarchical structure. In point of fact occupiers have experienced many of the same issues. In the absence of a mechanism to adjudicate disputes, a non-hierachical structure leads to gridlock. It doesn’t matter if there are decision making systems we can appeal to. If there is no way to establish an initial vision, there is too much divergence of opinion to unify the group.

How Can We Think About Leadership

The first thing to note is that there are always leaders. There is someone that calls the meeting, sends out the emails, makes the phone calls and so on. Of course, we need not call them leaders if you wish. We can call them organizers if preferred.

So the question is: under what conditions, in the absence of a Founding Document specifying hierarchy or leadership, are we willing to explicitly grant someone status as a leader of a group?

What would they have to do to earn the status of an open group that has no initial leaders?

Any thoughts?


3 Comments Leadership in Open Communities: the founders document dilemma

  1. AvatarJennifer Sertl

    I was reminded of the need for framing engagement. Here is something I wrote for NextEdge a couple of years ago. I hope it contributes to P2PFoundation community:

    Welcome to NextEdge.

    The person (persons) who invited you would like to acknowledge you for your contribution on behalf of the world at large.

    We are a global community of teachers, artists, scientists, thought-leaders, and futurists who care deeply about connecting at higher levels of both consciousness & also humanity.

    If you are working on a project and need some help, ask for help.

    If you are wanting to be mentally stimulated by some really cool people, feel free to hang out.

    We have a framework of operating– not even an agreement-as we want to keep as much open as possible to allow as much wisdom and insight.

    Because we are of many cultures and personal biases, please try not to take any of our errors & omissions personally–as we are all learning to transcend our own culture in order to take better care of the collective.

    If we misstep teach us. If you get feedback, please hear with an open heart.

    You can work on your own project or perhaps meet up with others where you find synergy

    You are not expected to “perform” or create “value.” Your being here to either observe or play is enough.

    We hope you find oxygen here as we know you are oxygenating your own sphere and may need to take better care of yourself based on where we are all headed. May we be both the rest & the reminder.

    At first you might be inundated with emails/posts/etc and feel overwhelmed with the frequency of engagement. Use whatever organization system you need to so that we don’t interrupt your natural flow.

    We are learning our needs in communicating and experimenting with platforms to find the best means to track/trend and allow you to go deeper on both the topics and people where there is resonance.

    This is the BETA for future multi-cultural collaboration.

    You hold a valuable clue to our NextEdge. Thanks for being here . . .

  2. Avatarhappyseaurchin

    (where do i comment so that suresh can read this?)

    the question is self-contained and does not give an opportunity for the appropriate level of solution


    in the absence of a founding document or indeed a boundedness to the network one is part of
    the leader is simply the person i follow

    in this case
    for example
    i am following suresh’s lead in taking the time to consider this dilemma

    that is
    without a boundedness to the group
    it is futile to look for “a leader” or indeed any static “status”
    as suresh has noticed in his summary of his experience

    the only realistic way to evaluate who has greatest influence on the group (should this be important)
    is to observe what the result of the group is —
    what has it achieved

    the conditions we are looking for is not an abstracted document
    but the actual result of the group’s activities —
    which means the operating system should be
    “give it a go” “try it and see” “just do it”
    and then base evaluations on results —
    and not spurious philosophical, verbal, argument-based, judgemental modes to attempt to evaluate the efficacy of a new suggestion

    in terms of social self-organisation
    i think we are at the developmental stage of a baby that has not learned to crawl let alone walk

    suresh is entirely correct in examining the initial conditions
    (a principle of chaotic systems)
    but instead of looking for some abstract answer
    it is simply required that two people engage and see what the result of their social engagement is
    eg https://docs.google.com/document/d/1b6BYqQjsBgzt7ji9pvhj-Oy0I42n-bvlygZDnji0KWE/edit

    in a school of fish
    each fish is simply following those around it
    and there are a few fish that are on the edge of the school “leading” the school
    but this is constantly changing

    a way to evaluate whether the school is doing well
    is whether theya re not bumping into things like the ground
    and they are avoiding predators and sharks and so on

    are there schools of fish that are particularly “good” at this
    and can we say that it has a bunch of skillful “leader” fish?

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