Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

24 Dec 2014, 23:48 p.m.

Good And Bad Signs For Community Change, And Some Leadership Styles

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2014 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

So let's assume you want to improve a particular community, and you've already read my earlier pieces, which I am now declaring prerequisites: "Why You Have To Fix Governance To Improve Hospitality", "Hospitality, Jerks, and What I Learned", and "Learn Tech Management in 45 Minutes" (all the way through the Q&A). And let's assume that you care about the community having a good pathway to inclusion, and that the community is caring or collaborative, rather than cordial, competitive, or combative.

When I look at an open stuff community, here are some factors that make me optimistic:

  • people with social capital in the project, whom other participants respect, support my goals in private conversation
  • even better: such people have reached out to me, of their own initiative, about it
  • even better than that: such people are already taking real action
  • I have personal relationships with at least one influential project leader
  • I am in the private spaces where project leaders talk
  • either the project's still new and the norms are in flux, or there's a new initiative or subcommunity where I can influence norms or even amend the rules of the game before they jell and harden


  • the founder of the project exercises charismatic/inertial authority and either does not support my goals, or is too afraid of conflict to take real action
  • per Selena Deckelmann's advice, "If someone is treating you with contempt, or you are using contempt in arguments, that's a big warning sign."
  • there is a private space where important conversation happens and I'm not invited
  • I, or someone else who shares my goals, has been unsuccessful in getting the community to do something small towards my goals. For instance, assuming my goal is improving gender diversity in a male-dominated workplace, I haven't been able to get them to adopt a first code of conduct, or improve a CoC to have real enforcement provisions, or participate in a women-centric job fair, or make a token effort towards diversity in guest speakers.
  • not just the rules of the game, but the dominant worldview, and perhaps the major actors, haven't changed in, say, more than three years

To achieve change in this kind of situation, you have to have enough social skills to be able to make relationships, to notice whether contempt has made an appearance, to grok the subtle stuff. A systems approach (leader as engineer) will get you part of the analysis and part of the solution; you also need relatedness (leader as mother). Requisite variety. In the face of a problem, some people reflexively reach more for "make a process that scales" and some for "have a conversation with ____"; perhaps this is the defining difference between introverts and extroverts, or maybe between geeks and nongeeks, in the workplace.* We need both, of course - scale and empathy.

A huge part of my job for the last four years was struggling with the question: how do you inculcate empathy in others, at scale, remotely? How do you you balance genuine openness to new people, including people who think very differently from you, with the need for norms and governance and, at times, exclusion?

Huh, I wonder whether this is the first blog entry I've ever tagged both with "Management and Leadership" and "Religion".

* My ambidextrousness on this count just makes me feel alien wherever I go. In open source, I am Mr. Rogers or Oprah Winfrey, with my supernatural enthusiastic extroversion and persuasive skills. In any non-engineering context, I am Tony Stark or a forgettable guest hacker on Numb3rs, quick with an X-ray view of underlying assumptions and incongruencies, brusque, wary of small talk, excusing myself from the party to get a quick alone break.


01 Jan 2015, 16:57 p.m.

Great post. Especially liking the questions"how do you inculcate empathy in others, at scale, remotely? How do you you balance genuine openness to new people, including people who think very differently from you, with the need for norms and governance and, at times, exclusion?" I am a process person and How questions always of course read as process questions to me but I think a curated balance of process and empathy heads in the room is undoubtedly a prerequisite. I'd love to hear more and talk more about this with you and others!