This post is part of an ongoing series of monthly blog posts by members of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees that aims to shed light on the function, responsibilities and inner workings of the Board.
I’ve often thought you need the thin skin of an amphibian and the thick hide of a rhinoceros to be a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation. Your skin must be thin enough to allow different ideas, voices, thoughts and perspectives to permeate, including those most distant or different from your own – openness is an inherent aspect of leadership. At the same time, it must be thick enough to weed out distractions and inessentials. And of course, your mind must be capable of knowing the difference.
What makes leadership complex in Wikimedia is its vast, diverse and decentralized nature. Like the movement itself, the 10 of us on the Wikimedia Foundation board come from different cultures, continents, backgrounds and experiences – all of which shape how we understand power and leadership. And all of which determine, to some extent, the kinds of leaders we aspire to be or will become.
Let’s dive a bit deeper into this. In companies or corporations where the notion of hierarchy is accepted, power can flow directly up or down in a straight line. In academics, the teacher-learner dynamic provides cues for the exercise of power and leadership. In the women’s rights movement, which is part of my background, power is a dirty word and erasing power inequalities between genders is an explicit goal. Thus leadership here cannot be overt or heavy-handed; it has to be subtle and implicit, more circular and collective, sometimes even veiled. In the sex workers’ rights movement, of which I am a long-time ally, we turn power on its head and equip unlettered sex workers or the ‘powerless’ to become leaders. This requires supportive ‘outsiders’ to consciously step back and transfer some of their own skills and power to ‘insiders’.
As WMF trustees, we exercise leadership through a mix of methods, from the invisible to the visible, the implicit to the explicit and the subtle to the evident. One of our most commonplace, yet most profound, acts of leadership is upholding shared values and principles, an everyday act that we take almost for granted. Let’s take consensus, which is a movement-wide principle.  On the WMF board, we regularly strive for consensus in our decision-making, while understanding that consensus is not unanimity. This is done through certain routinely followed processes. For example, at our board meetings, virtual or physical, each trustee is given a chance to speak on each agenda item. This may sound basic, but this is essential to give everyone a voice. This round-robin technique ensures that newer trustees are not hesitant to speak, brings diverse views to the table, prevents any one trustee or viewpoint from dominating the discussion, or the formation of cliques or lobbies advocating a particular perspective. And it ensures we don’t get entrenched in our individual positions – as long as we are honest enough to admit we may not have all the answers in our heads. And open enough to changing our minds in the face of better evidence, arguments and insights.
And as each trustee voices his or her thoughts, never repeating what has already been said, but plus-oneing, adding, sifting, sorting, shading, unconsidered points and nuances appear on the table, the conversation starts to round out – and commonalities, or the building blocks of consensus, start to emerge. I find this process almost magical – and Wikipedian in the sense that our collective decisions are built through our individual contributions that we share with one another, just like our articles.
Another way we exercise leadership is by using our influence, but this is done sparingly, modestly and in a peer-to-peer manner that fosters equality in keeping with our values. An encouraging nod, supportive email or helping hand where it can make a difference, a candid behind-the-scenes conversation when it’s called for, sometimes calling a spade a spade, or a banana a banana rather than an elongated yellow fruit. There is satisfaction at having done the right thing, even though no one may be there to witness it.
Leadership is often misunderstood only as flaunting one’s power, but it is as much about recognizing and accepting the impact, and the limits of power. As WMF trustees, we entrust the Executive Director to make or implement certain decisions; that is what delegation of power is all about. In theory, delegating power is easy, like building consensus. In practice, it means exercising a different kind of leadership, one which knows how and when to step back just as much as it knows when and how to step forward. You have to keep moving between the spotlight and the shadows to be an effective leader.
In this sense, good leadership also means allowing others to lead and creating the space and conditions to do so; as Board liaisons or observers to Board-created committees such as the Affiliations Committee or the Funds Dissemination Committee we must constantly ensure that our presence encourages accountability but does not prevent others from exercising their leadership. At the same time, we must know when to step in and provide needed guidance or suggest improvements. Ask tough questions when they must be asked. And explain Board decisions that may not be popular but that we, as trustees, consider meaningful for the movement.
All in all, leadership is a balancing act, a bit like walking on a tightrope. Lean too far ahead and you’re too much of a leader. Lean too far back and you’re not enough of a leader. How can one command leadership while continually deconstructing hierarchies of power? How can one challenge thinking that has fossilized and inspire others to think in different ways? How can one bring one’s personal experiences and influences to the boardroom while putting aside one’s personal agendas? How can one have skin that is both thick and thin? How can one see the trees without missing the woods – or the big picture – in the same gaze? And finally, how can we think not just of the needs of today, but also those of tomorrow?
As trustees the ultimate challenge before us is to be many-splendoured things, as per this Buddhist model of leadership: sometimes “visionary (or mission-driven, mission above all else, including constituent interests and noise),” sometimes “role model (exemplary figure, does what he says, someone who can be respected and emulated, lead by example),” sometimes balanced “(impartiality in judgement rather than resolving conflict),” sometimes “manager (ability to delegate),” sometimes “protector (of the movement, wellbeing of the community),” sometimes “showing the way (inspire others to their full potential).”  Or as one 11-year-old girl simplified it to her mother: “Leadership is helping others, particularly through difficult times. They need to show that this is the way you could go for your future.”  I’ll plus one her on that.
Bishakha Datta (User:Bishdatta) has been serving on the WMF Board of Trustees since 2010.
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